Examining Bd. v. Flores de Otero
Annotate this Case
426 U.S. 572 (1976)
U.S. Supreme Court
Examining Bd. v. Flores de Otero, 426 U.S. 572 (1976)
Examining Board of Engineers, Architects and
Surveyors v. Flores de Otero
Argued December 8, 1975
Decided June 17, 1976
426 U.S. 572
A Puerto Rico statute permits only United States citizens to practice privately as civil engineers. Appellees are alien civil engineers residing in Puerto Rico, one of whom (Flores de Otero) was denied a license under the statute, and the other of whom (Perez Nogueiro) was granted only a conditional license to work for the Commonwealth. Each appellee brought suit for declaratory and injunctive relief against appellant Examining Board and its members in the United States District Court in Puerto Rico, claiming jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3) and alleging that the statute's citizenship requirement violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1343(3) gives district courts jurisdiction of actions "[to] redress the deprivation, under color of any State law" of federal constitutional rights, privileges, or immunities, and § 1983 provides that "[e]very person who, under color of any statute . . . of any State or Territory" deprives another of "any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws" shall be liable to the party injured in a proper action. In the Flores de Otero action, a three-judge court, after determining that it had jurisdiction under § 1343 to enforce § 1983, and that abstention was unnecessary, held the citizenship requirement unconstitutional and directed that Flores be fully licensed as a civil engineer. In a separate and subsequent judgment, the same court granted like relief to Perez.
1. The District Court had jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3) to enforce the provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Pp. 426 U. S. 580-597.
(a) The federal territorial, as well as the United States district and circuit courts, as confirmed by the legislative history
of § § 1343(3) and 1983 and their predecessor statutes, generally had jurisdiction to redress deprivations of constitutional rights by persons acting under color of territorial law. Pp. 426 U. S. 581-586.
(b) The history of the legislation specifically respecting Puerto Rico supports the conclusion that the United States District Court in Puerto Rico prior to Puerto Rico's becoming a Commonwealth in 1952 had the same jurisdiction to enforce § 1983 as that conferred by § 1343(3) and its predecessors on the United States district courts in the several States, and that Congress, by entering into the compact by which Puerto Rico assumed "Commonwealth" status, did not intend to leave the protection of federal right.s exclusively to the local Puerto Rico courts and to repeal by implication the jurisdiction of the United States District Court in Puerto Rico to enforce § 1983. Pp. 426 U. S. 586-595.
(c) While Puerto Rico occupies a unique relationship to the United States, it does not follow that Congress intended to relinquish enforcement of § 1983 by restricting the jurisdiction of the United States District Court in Puerto Rico, cf. District of Columbia v. Carter, 409 U. S. 418, and whether Puerto Rico is considered a Territory or a State for purposes of the jurisdictional question is of little consequence, because each is included within § 1983 and, therefore, within § 1343(3). Pp. 426 U. S. 595-597.
2. The District Court correctly determined that abstention was unnecessary, since the federal constitutional claim is not complicated by an unresolved state law question, even though appellees might have sought relief under similar provisions of the Puerto Rico Constitution. Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 400 U. S. 433; Harris County Comm'rs Court v. Moore, 420 U. S. 77. Pp. 426 U. S. 597-598.
3. Puerto Rico's prohibition of an alien's engaging in the private practice of engineering deprives appellees of "rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws," within the meaning of § 1983. Pp. 426 U. S. 599-606.
(a) The question whether it is the Fifth Amendment or the Fourteenth that protects Puerto Rico residents need not be resolved since, irrespective of which Amendment applies, the statutory restriction on the ability of aliens to engage in the otherwise lawful private practice of civil engineering is plainly unconstitutional. If the Fourteenth Amendment applies, the Equal Protection Clause nullifies the statutory exclusion, whereas, if the Fifth Amendment and its Due Process Clause apply, the statute's discrimination is so egregious as to violate due process. Pp. 426 U. S. 599-601.
(b) The validity of the statute must be determined under the principles that state classifications based on alienage are subject to "strict judicial scrutiny," and that laws containing such classifications will be upheld only if the State or Territory imposing them is able to satisfy the burden of demonstrating that
"its purpose or interest is both constitutionally permissible and substantial, and that its use of the classification is 'necessary . . . to the accomplishment' of its purpose or the safeguarding of its interest,"
In re Griffiths, 413 U. S. 717, 413 U. S. 721-722. This burden is not met by any of the following three justifications offered by appellants for the citizenship requirement: (i) to prevent the "uncontrolled" influx of Spanish-speaking aliens in the engineering field in Puerto Rico; (ii) to raise the prevailing low standard of living in Puerto Rico; and (iii) to provide the client of a civil engineer an assurance of financial accountability if a building for which the engineer is responsible collapses. Pp. 426 U. S. 601-606.
BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, and POWELL, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, J., filed an opinion dissenting in part, post, p. 426 U. S. 606. STEVENS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.