“The Federal Courts and Puerto Rico: A Catalyst of Institutional and Social Change,” a Talk by Judge Gustavo Gelpi of the First Circuit Court of Appeals

Judge Gustavo Gelpi started his legal career as a judicial clerk for the late Judge Juan Pérez-Giménez on the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico after earning his undergraduate degree from Brandeis University and his law degree from Suffolk University Law School. After his clerkship, he worked as an assistant federal public defender, as an assistant attorney general, and as solicitor general of Puerto Rico, and then spent time in private practice before his appointment as a magistrate judge in the District of Puerto Rico in 2001. He was appointed to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico by President George W. Bush in 2006 and served as the district’s Chief Judge from 2018 to 2021, when he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, based in Boston.

Judge Gelpi spoke candidly about how his work as a federal defender and prosecutor and as his territory’s solicitor general informed his work on the bench.

Key Takeaways

  • Judge Gelpi changed his career focus as a result of his clerkship. He discovered an interest in criminal law as a judicial clerk. “I thought I’d finish law school and join a big corporate law firm,” he said. “But during my clerkship, I really started liking criminal practice, and I realized I really wanted to practice in federal court. Clerking for a judge, you’re going to see what attorneys do that’s good and learn from the judge how things should be done,” he said.
  • Government service allows attorneys to gain substantive trial experience early in their careers. As a federal defender and federal prosecutor, Gelpi worked on cases involving drug trafficking, violence crime, immigration, child pornography, and RICO crimes. As a judge, he presided over criminal cases as well as trials involving federal regulations such as the Clean Water Act.
  • As solicitor general of Puerto Rico, Gelpi argued in an important legal case that U.S. citizens who are residents of Puerto Rico are entitled to vote in presidential elections and that Puerto Rico should have electoral votes. “It was a very uphill battle, and we did not prevail, but it made the issue public. We all saw this as a civil rights issue,” he said.
  • Sentencing is a challenging and important aspect of judicial service. “I must have sentenced over 4,000 individuals in 15 years,” Judge Gelpi said. “Sentencing is very individual. It has to be sufficient and take into account the individual person’s characteristics.”

Judge Gelpi was introduced by Luis A. Avilés, JD/MFS’24, who is vice president of La Alianza. His talk was sponsored by the VLS Office of Diversity, Equity, and Community.