By Danica Coto, Associated Press
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court overturned the swearing in of Pedro Pierluisi as the island’s governor less than a week ago, clearing the way for Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez to take up the post Wednesday after weeks of turmoil. The unanimous ruling said Pierluisi must step aside immediately.
The high court’s decision, which cannot be appealed, solves at least the dispute over who will lead the U.S. territory after its political establishment was knocked off balance by large protests spawned by anger over corruption, mismanagement of funds and a leaked obscenity-laced chat that forced the previous governor and several top aides to resign.
But it was also expected to unleash a new wave of demonstrations because many Puerto Ricans have said they don’t want Vázquez as governor.
“It is concluded that the swearing in as governor by Hon. Pedro R. Pierluisi Urrutia, named secretary of state in recess, is unconstitutional,” the court said in a brief statement.
After the ruling, Vázquez said she would step in as governor despite earlier saying didn’t want the job.
“Puerto Rico needs assurance and stability. Our actions will be aimed toward that end and it will always come first,” she said in a statement. She was to be sworn later Wednesday.
Pierluisi said previously he would respect whatever ruling was made.
People began cheering in some parts of San Juan after the ruling was announced, and Puerto Ricans were expected to gather later outside the governor’s seaside mansion in the capital’s colonial district — some to celebrate the court’s decision and others to protest the incoming governor.
In the early afternoon, someone yelled through a loudspeaker near the residence: “Pierluisi out! The constitution of Puerto Rico should be respected!”
“It was the correct decision,” said Xiomary Morales, a 21-year-old waitress and student who works a block away, adding that those in power “are used to doing what they want.”
Puerto Ricans are physically and emotionally exhausted and want an end to the political turmoil, she said: “They should just hold fresh elections, hit restart like a PlayStation game.”
But Tita Caraballo, a 65-year-old retired nurse from the inland eastern city of Gurabo, disagreed with the court.
“I think they are playing with the people and, I don’t know, maybe they have someone they want and that is why they are doing this,” Caraballo said.
Pierluisi was appointed secretary of state by then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló while legislators were in recess, and only the House approved his nomination. Pierluisi was then sworn in as governor Friday after Rosselló formally resigned in response to angry street protests.
Puerto Rico’s Senate sued to challenge Pierluisi’s legitimacy as governor, arguing that its approval was also necessary, and the Supreme Court decided in favor of the Senate.
On Monday, the Senate decided not to hold a vote although the body’s president, Thomas Rivera Schatz, said Pierluisi had only five of 15 required votes. The same day the Supreme court announced it would hear the case.
The Senate had also asked the court to declare unconstitutional a portion of a 2005 law saying a secretary of state need not be approved by both House and Senate if they have to step in as governor. Puerto Rico’s constitution says a secretary of state has to be approved by both chambers.
The court agreed that the clause was unconstitutional.
Rivera Schatz praised the ruling in a triumphant statement.
“With absolute LEGITIMACY, we will seek TRUE PEACE and STABILITY,” he said.
Six of the court’s nine judges were appointed by governors from the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, to which both Pierluisi and Rivera Schatz belong.
Vázquez, a 59-year-old former prosecutor, stands to be Puerto Rico’s second female governor, serving out the remainder of Rosselló’s term, with the next election scheduled for 2020.
Vázquez became justice secretary in January 2017 and has limited experience leading government agencies. She previously worked as a district attorney for two decades at Puerto Rico’s justice department, handling domestic and sexual abuse cases, and in 2010 was appointed director of the Office for Women’s Rights.
Some critics say that as justice secretary she was not aggressive enough in pursuing corruption investigations involving members of her New Progressive Party, and that she did not prioritize gender violence cases.
William Gónzalez Roman, a 71-year-old retiree also from Gurabo, wasn’t bullish on the idea of Vázquez as governor.
“We will see. You have to give everyone a chance, right?” González said. “Let’s see what decisions (she makes), but I tell you that job is big with a lot of responsibility.”
Last November, the Office of Government Ethics said it had received a complaint about possible ethical violations involving Vázquez, who was accused of intervening in a case involving a suspect charged with stealing government property at a home where Vázquez’s daughter lived.
Vázquez appeared in court to face charges including two violations of a government ethics law. In December a judge found there was no evidence to arrest her.
Rosselló’s resignation followed nearly two weeks of protests after the public emergence of the chat in which he and 11 other men including government officials mocked women, gay people and victims of Hurricane Maria, among others. More than two dozen officials resigned in the wake of the leak, including former Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marín.
“NOW is when that detestable group from the chat that lied, mocked, machinated, conspired, violated the law and betrayed Puerto Rico is truly ended and will leave government,” Rivera Schatz, the Senate president, said Wednesday.
Associated Press writer Mariela Santos in San Juan contributed to this report.