SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court accepted submissions on Tuesday from Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and from lawmakers who contend that his appointment last week to succeed the disgraced Ricardo Rossello violated the constitution of this US commonwealth.
Pierluisi, formerly Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in the US Congress, took the oath of office last Friday, minutes after Rossello stepped down following weeks of mass protests.
Under Puerto Rico’s constitution, the secretary of state is supposed to become governor in the event the incumbent is unable to continue in office.
But in the current case, the position of secretary of state was vacant at the time of Rossello’s announcement, as incumbent Luis Rivera Marin had quit on July 13 as a result of the same scandal that ultimately toppled the governor, and the initial plan called for the next person in the line of succession, Justice Minister Wanda Vazquez, to assume the governorship.
But in the face of hostile public reaction, Vazquez – a Rossello ally herself accused of ethical lapses – quickly renounced her claim.
Puerto Rico’s political leaders eventually settled on the idea of making Pierluisi secretary of state and then having him succeed Rossello.
Pierluisi was sworn-in last Wednesday as secretary of state and had been scheduled to appear before the Senate the following day for a confirmation hearing.
But Senate leader Thomas Rivera Schatz decided to postpone the confirmation until this week, while the lower house confirmed Pierluisi as secretary of state on Friday, barely an hour before Rossello abandoned office.
Late Sunday, Rivera filed a legal challenge, claiming that the ratification of Pierluisi by the House of Representatives fell short of what is required by a 1952 piece of legislation known as Law 7.
Law 7 says that a person nominated as secretary of state is subject to confirmation by the Legislative Assembly.
Attorneys representing Pierluisi said in the brief presented Tuesday to the Supreme Court that the Senate, by failing to hold a confirmation hearing last week, forfeited its right to be consulted.
Pierluisi’s counsel also wrote that the Puerto Rican constitution permits the installation of a secretary of state via a recess appointment and that a secretary who took office under those conditions can then assume the governorship in case of a vacancy, albeit on a temporary basis.
Acknowledging that Pierluisi became governor under circumstances that were “not ideal from the viewpoint of electoral democracy,” the brief nevertheless insisted on the legality of his accession.
The Senate’s lawyers, for their part, said that the procedure followed last week deprived the upper chamber of its constitutional prerogative to offer its “advice and consent” on the nomination for secretary of state.
Pierluisi, according to the Senate’s argument, “lacks the endorsement of the direct representatives of the people who elected the governor and becomes the successor to the throne directly designated by the outgoing governor.”
The brief also points to Section IX of Article Four of Puerto Rico’s constitution, which provides that if the governorship becomes vacant in the absence of a duly confirmed secretary of state, the new governor will be chosen by majority vote of both chambers of the legislature.
The Supreme Court judges – Edgardo Rivera, Maite D. Oronoz, Anabelle Rodriguez, Angel Colon, Rafael L. Martinez, Mildred Pabon, Erick Kolthoff, Roberto Feliberti and Luis F. Estrella – can take as long as they like to consider the case before rendering a decision.
Puerto Rican media outlets reported Monday that Pierluisi failed to provide a financial disclosure form prior to his confirmation by the House of Representatives, which agree to rely on a sworn declaration by the nominee in lieu of documents.
Rivera referred to those reports in comments Tuesday on social media.
“And to be governor, in the circumstances we are in, do you believe that a mere sworn declaration is sufficient?” the Senate leader asked rhetorically.
The crisis began last month with the publication of messages from a private online chat group comprising Rossello and other top officials as well figures from outside the administration.
Disseminated by the Center for Investigative Journalism, the 800-plus pages of chats include references to San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz and Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Puerto Rico-born former president of the New York City Council, as “whores.”
In one exchange, Rossello responds approvingly when an official says he would like to shoot Mayor Cruz, while a gubernatorial aide jokes about the thousands of Puerto Ricans who died in 2017 as a result of Hurricane Maria.
Rossello and others on the chat also made homophobic comments about openly gay Puerto Rican pop star Ricky Martin.
The publication of the chats came as the Rossello government was reeling from the arrests of two former senior officials on charges of fraud, theft and money laundering.