Puerto Rico swears in new governor after Supreme Court rules Pierluisi must step down

Puerto Rico’s secretary of justice, Wanda Vázquez, was sworn in as governor on Wednesday afternoon, the third person in six days to hold the island’s top job. But even before her caravan arrived at La Fortaleza governor’s mansion, there was speculation about how long she might keep the position.

Vázquez, the second woman to ever hold Puerto Rico’s top post, was sworn in just hours after the U.S. territory’s Supreme Court ruled that her predecessor, Pedro Pierluisi, had been put in place in violation of the constitution.

Pierluisi, in turn, had only had the job since Friday, after his predecessor, Ricardo Rosselló, used an obscure 2005 law to justify the handover of power. On Wednesday the court ruled unanimously that the transition had been unconstitutional.

Vázquez inherits an administration riven by infighting and gutted by resignations. Among the spots she’ll need to fill is secretary of state — the person who would replace her if she steps down.

Vázquez, 59, initially said she didn’t want the governorship, but in a statement issued shortly after the court ruling she said it was her constitutional duty to assume the role given that there was no sitting secretary of state, the person normally in line for the job if the governor resigns.

“Puerto Rico needs certainty and stability and our actions are directed to that end,” she said. “That will always come first.”

On the streets of San Juan, there was frustration with the political whiplash.

“I was never a fan of Pierluisi’s, but I would have preferred for him to stay, there’s so much uncertainty now,” said Melissa Rodriguez, a 45-year-old cafeteria worker, who had participated in the mass marches to oust his predecessor.

Like others, Rodriguez feared the changes weren’t over. She repeated a widespread rumor that Vázquez will only stay in power long enough to appoint a new secretary of state and then resign. Among those rumored to be interested in taking the No. 2 spot is Jenniffer González, the island’s non-voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the chairwoman of Puerto Rico’s Republican party.

In a statement, González said she was “more than willing to collaborate with everything Governor Vázquez needs to tackle the difficult tasks and heavy responsibilities of this office she has just been sworn into.”

Wednesday’s ruling is just the latest twist for the U.S. territory of 3.2 million that is struggling to find its feet amid a debt crisis and as it is still recovering from a devastating 2017 hurricane season.

Pierluisi’s brief rise to the top began July 31, when Rosselló appointed him secretary of state. Two days later, Rosselló stepped down and handed over power to the 60-year-old lawyer.

But the island’s Senate hadn’t ratified Pierluisi in his cabinet position before he assumed the governor’s post.

Under Puerto Rico’s constitution, both chambers of the legislature needed to approve his role as secretary of state — a position the court underscored on Wednesday.

In a recorded message, Pierluisi said he took office based on the “applicable law at that time.”

“These past few days, I have given my all, I have called on the commitment of our public servants, and I have sought to give peace and stability to our people,” he said in a statement. “I wish much success to the Honorable Wanda Vázquez-Garced as Governor of Puerto Rico.”

Rosselló was midway through his term when he was forced to resign amid a burgeoning corruption scandal and mass protests that erupted after it was revealed that he used misogynistic and homophobic language in a private chat group with 11 of his advisers and confidants.

“The summer of 2019 will be remembered as the unprecedented moment in which Puerto Ricans — of all ages, ideologies, backgrounds and creeds — took to the streets and demanded more from their government,” said Puerto Rico Chief Justice Maite Oronoz Rodríguez in Wednesday’s ruling.

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The legal dispute hinged on a 2005 amendment to Puerto Rico’s 1952 law of succession that, in part, suggested that a secretary of state did not need the consent of the island’s legislature to be sworn in as governor.

A section of that law said that a secretary of state named “in recess” — as Pierluisi was — did not have to be confirmed by both chambers of the legislature.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday found that portion of the amendment was unconstitutional.

If Pierluisi were to remain in power, the judges wrote, “the government of Puerto Rico would be headed by a governor who was exclusively chosen by an outgoing governor,” without the people’s consent.

The different interpretations leading up to the ruling prompted some experts to question the motivations behind the 2005 amendment, which was authored by González. At the time, she was serving as president of the island’s House of Representatives in a legislature controlled by the pro-statehood New Progressive Party.

The governor then, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, belonged to the main opposition Popular Democratic Party, PPD, which supports the island’s current territorial status.

“It was really irresponsible management by the legislature ... to try to change the text of the constitution, something that is impossible to do if you’re going to respect it,” said Angel Rosa, professor of political science at the University of Puerto Rico and former senator for the PPD.

Rosa said he didn’t know of the existence of the amendment until it was discussed last week, when Puerto Ricans were still in the dark about who would be Rosselló’s successor.

Pierluisi’s attorneys argued that his swearing-in was legitimate because he was rightfully appointed during a legislative recess. Anything to the contrary would “constitute an impermissible usurpation of the executive power,” according to the documents they filed with the court.

Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who filed the suit, argued that the law was incorrectly interpreted, and that Pierluisi’s actions “usurped the prerogatives of advice and consent of the Senate of Puerto Rico.”

In a statement on his Facebook page, Rivera Schatz called the ruling a great victory for the island.

“Now is when that detestable group from [Rosselló’s] chat that lied, belittled, schemed, conspired, broke the law and betrayed Puerto Rico will truly be gone,” he wrote. “They were disguised, trying to hold on to power, but finally they are gone and we can restore order and direction.”

Miguel Laureano, who owns a food truck in San Juan, put the blame for the turmoil on the powerful head of the Senate. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if Rivera Schatz — who had been antagonistic to Rosselló and created obstacles for Pierluisi’s ratification despite being a member of their same New Progressive Party — ends up in the governor’s chair.

“If that happens, I think the people would rise up again,” he said, “and this country would be more stuck than ever.”

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