The Puerto Rico Supreme Court threw the leadership of the island into new turmoil Wednesday, ruling that the governor who took over last week, Pedro Pierluisi, was sworn in on unconstitutional grounds.
The unanimous ruling ousted Pierluisi and paved the way for Wanda Vazquez, the secretary of justice, to take the oath of office as Puerto Rico's third governor in five days.
With her husband and daughter by her side, Vazquez raised her right hand and was sworn in by Chief Justice Maite Oronoz Rodriguez at the Supreme Court in San Juan, the capital.
"Puerto Rico needs certainty and stability," Vazquez, who had previously said she did not want the job, said in a statement before her swearing-in. She became the second female governor in Puerto Rican history.
The 29-page ruling said Pierluisi could not remain as governor and called for "an orderly succession."
Shortly before 5 p.m. in Puerto Rico, Pierluisi said he would step aside. He had earlier left La Fortaleza, the governor's official residence, in a black SUV.
"I want to be clear that the only motivation I have had during this time, as always, has been the well-being of Puerto Rico," he said in a statement, in which he wished Vazquez well in her new role. "This is a time when we must all unite for Puerto Rico, leaving behind any partisan, ideological or personal agendas."
The court ruled in favor of the Puerto Rico Senate, which sued late Sunday asking the court to issue a preliminary injunction against Pierluisi taking over the office of chief executive. He became governor Friday, even though he had not been confirmed as secretary of state by both chambers of the Legislative Assembly. Only the House of Representatives approved his recess appointment.
The events of the past few weeks represent the "most important juncture" in Puerto Rico's history as a democracy, Oronoz wrote in a concurring opinion Wednesday. "The summer of 2019 will be remembered as an unprecedented moment in which Puerto Ricans -- of all ages, ideologies, backgrounds and creeds -- threw themselves into the street to demand more from their government."
Thomas Rivera Schatz, the Senate president who raised the legal challenge to Pierluisi's appointment, said the court's ruling showed that it had been an illegal attempt by Puerto Rico's ruling party to designate a successor outside the bounds of the constitution.
"To those who lent themselves, for their personal interest, to this embarrassing attempt to install an illegitimate government, that is how the history of Puerto Rico will remember you," Schatz, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor, said in a statement.
To justify Pierluisi's ascent to the governor's seat, Pierluisi and his predecessor, Ricardo Rossello, cited a 2005 statute that said the secretary of state did not require legislative confirmation to step in as governor. On Wednesday, the court declared that portion of the law unconstitutional. The rest of the law, regarding the line of succession, is valid, the court found.
"The constitution requires the advice and consent of both chambers," said Yanira Reyes Gil, a constitutional scholar and associate law professor at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico. "It is a basic principle of constitutional law that the constitution takes precedence."
In a concurring opinion, Justice Angel Colon Perez likened the way in which Rossello handed over power to Pierluisi to the way a king turns over his throne.
"If a country's ruler were empowered to choose his successor, or possible successor, without a minimal guarantee of democratic consensus, there would not be much difference between our system of government and a monarchy," he wrote. "We do not live in a monarchy."
Pierluisi's lawyers had argued that the Senate could have voted on his nomination, as the House did, but chose not to do so before Rossello's resignation became effective Friday. Rossello was forced out of office by public protests prompted by the leak of hundreds of pages of private messages in which he and his aides insulted politicians and everyday Puerto Ricans.
People began cheering in some parts of San Juan after the Supreme Court's 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.
"It was the correct decision," said Xiomary Morales, a 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 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, like Rossello, is a member of the ruling New Progressive Party, which supports statehood for Puerto Rico. He is also a Democrat when it comes to national politics, though political parties on the island do not match up with those on the mainland.
The national political affiliation of Vazquez, a career prosecutor, is unclear.
In his brief time in office, Pierluisi, the island's former nonvoting resident commissioner in Congress, emphasized his experience and competence. He made no major decisions and issued no executive orders but tried to give off an air of stability, holding meetings with agency heads and prominent businessmen and discussing matters such as hurricane preparedness and the new school year.
But the political crisis has paralyzed much of the government for nearly a month and has hurt Puerto Rico's credibility in Washington, where President Donald Trump's administration has already delayed more than $8 billion in federal disaster prevention funds pending more oversight.
Pierluisi said Tuesday that if forced out by the Supreme Court, he had no interest in remaining as secretary of state and would instead return to the private sector. If she does not wish to remain governor, Vazquez could appoint a new secretary of state and then resign.
If that were to occur, one possible candidate would be Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, Puerto Rico's resident commissioner in Congress, who already has been talked about as running for the seat in 2020. Gonzalez-Colon is also a member of the ruling party, and her broad popularity could help the New Progressive Party hold on to power. But the crisis has revealed serious rifts among New Progressives, and protesters have made clear that they do not trust most institutions, especially not the party in government.
Sen. Eduardo Bhatia of the opposition Popular Democratic Party, which supports Puerto Rico's commonwealth status, filed a court brief in support of the Senate's lawsuit challenging Pierluisi's appointment.
"They have a habit of doing things in a way that is not consistent with the law," said Bhatia, one of several Popular Democratic candidates running for governor next year.
Although many Puerto Ricans viewed Pierluisi as the least objectionable candidate from the ruling party, activists who led the movement on the streets to unseat the previous governor viewed his selection as an example of holding the seat inside the political establishment.
Information for this article was contributed by Patricia Mazzei and Frances Robles of The New York Times; and by Danica Coto and Mariela Santos of The Associated Press.
Pedro Pierluisi leaves a news conference Wednesday at the Puerto Rican Governor’s Mansion in San Juan after announcing that he would abide by a court ruling and step aside as governor after being sworn in on Friday.
A Section on 08/08/2019
Print Headline: Puerto Rico ousts governor, gets new one