Puerto Rico Police Department Still Fights Consequences of Unconstitutional Rule

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Lambda urges court to affirm attorneys' fees award
March 6, 2001

(NEW YORK, March 6, 2001) — Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund is urging a federal appeals court to uphold an order that the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico pay plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees after a long, successful fight to strike down a Police Department rule that forbade officers from associating in any context with any gay person.

On Wednesday, March 7 in San Juan, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit will hear argument in Ramos v. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Lambda Cooperating Attorney Suzanne B. Goldberg will argue the appeal for all the plaintiffs and afterwards will be available for comment outside the court.

Lambda Legal Director Ruth E. Harlow said, “The Puerto Rico Police Department fought hard to keep an unconstitutional rule that interfered with our clients’ first amendment rights. Now, the Commonwealth must pay the bill for the police department’s longstanding civil rights violation.”

The rule foiled efforts by the Gay Officers Action League, also known as GOAL and based in New York, to affiliate with and advocate on behalf of lesbian and gay law enforcement personnel in Puerto Rico. GOAL and three activists brought the winning suit.

The Puerto Rico Police Department’s (PRPD) Regulation 29 stated, “It is a grave offense for police officers to associate with prostitutes, homosexuals, or other persons of dubious reputation.” Police officers who violated this regulation risked official reprimands or even dismissal.

In 1998, the Federal District Court for the District of Puerto Rico stuck down Regulation 29 as a violation of the First Amendment. The court also issued an injunction barring Puerto Rico’s police commissioner from ever punishing officers who associate with gay people.

Those victories have not been challenged, and the reforms of the department are final, but the Commonwealth appealed the court’s awarding attorneys fees to Lambda and its co-counsel.

“Under the guise of challenging the fee award, the Commonwealth is trying to re-litigate the merits. They argue the PRPD never did anything wrong and no remedy was necessary here. But the district court correctly found that several strong orders to change the department’s policy were mandated by the Constitution. And the court ordered the classic civil rights remedy of attorneys fees, to partially compensate plaintiffs for all they had to go through to get this harmful rule lifted for everyone,” Harlow said.

Goldberg, a former Lambda senior attorney, is assisting with the case along with co-counsel Colleen Meenan, a solo practitioner in New York. Lambda represents GOAL, Carroll Hunter, and Thomsas Jeans. Judith Berkan, a civil rights attorney in Puerto Rico, represents Dr. Rosalina Ramos Padro, a lesbian activist who is also a plaintiff in the case.

Headquartered in New York and with regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta, Lambda is the nation’s oldest and largest legal organization dedicated to lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS.

WHAT: Oral argument in Ramos v. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico
WHO: Lambda Cooperating Attorney Suzanne Goldberg, along with co-counsel Colleen Meenan and Judith Berkan, will be available to speak with reporters after argument
WHERE: U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, 300 Recinto Sur Street, San Juan, Puerto Rico
WHEN: Wednesday, March 7, 9 a.m. AST


(Ramos v. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, No. 95-1770)

CONTACT: Peg Byron 212-809-8585 x 230, 888-987-1984 (pager)
Ruth E. Harlow 212-809-8585 x 210
Suzanne B. Goldberg 917-287-0285


 

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