Puerto Rico Supreme Court removes Governor Pierluisi; Wanda Vázquez becomes governor

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Thursday, August 8, 2019

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico issued a ruling finding in favor of a lawsuit filed by the Puerto Rico Senate on Sunday against Pedro Pierluisi over his claim to the governorship. Pierluisi was sworn in last week following the August 2 resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares due to a texting scandal. Following the ruling, Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez Garced was sworn in as Puerto Rico's governor at 5:00 p.m. (2100 UTC) in the Supreme Court.

Wanda Vázquez being sworn in as governor by Chief Justice Maite Oronoz Rodríguez, standing to her left is her husband, Jorge Díaz Reverón, and their daughter Beatriz Díaz Vázquez. (Image: La Fortaleza)

The opinion of the Court, released on Wednesday, read in part, "[I]t is concluded that the oath of office as governor of the Honorable Pedro R. Pierluisi Urrutia, secretary of state nominated during [an Assembly] recess, is unconstitutional[...] Pierluisi Urrutia can no longer continue in the position of governor as of the moment in which this opinion and ruling is effective[.]" ((es))Spanish language: ‍[S]e concluye que la juramentación como gobernador del honorable Pedro R. Pierluisi Urrutia, secretario de Estado nombrado en receso, es inconstitucional[...] Pierluisi Urrutia no puede continuar en el cargo del gobernador a partir del momento en que esta opinión y sentencia sea efectiva

Governor Vázquez had previously stated she was uninterested in taking up the governorship, but would fill the position as needed. In a statement posted to her Twitter account before being sworn in, then-Secretary Vázquez affirmed her willingness to accept the role, writing, "Puerto Rico needs certainty and stability. Our actions will be directed at that purpose and will always be first" ((es))Spanish language: ‍Puerto Rico necesita certeza y estabilidad. Nuestras acciones estarán dirigidas a ese fin y siempre estará primero.

The now-former governor Pierluisi was sworn in as governor on August 2 following Rosselló's resignation. Before resigning, Rosselló appointed Pierluisi as secretary of state, the position which becomes the successor to the governorship following vacancy. The Puerto Rican constitution requires consent from both houses of the Legislative Assembly to confirm a candidate for secretary of state.

While the House of Representatives confirmed Pierluisi's nomination on Friday, the Senate did not. Pierluisi stated he would leave the governorship if the Senate voted against confirming him. By Sunday afternoon, Pierluisi said the Senate had no say in his confirmation since there was no longer a secretary of state, and that the courts should decide who holds the governorship.

The Senate was to meet Monday to discuss Pierluisi's confirmation. Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz filed the lawsuit against Pierliusi on behalf of the Senate late Sunday night. According to a memo posted online by Senator Juan Dalmau, the Senate cancelled its planned hearing because Pierluisi did "...not recongnize the authority of the Puerto Rico Senate to address the [matter]." ((es))Spanish language: ‍...no reconoce la facultad del Senado de Puerto Rico para atendar la misma

In finding Pierluisi was improperly sworn in as governor, the Supreme Court also found unconstitutional a 2005 law permitting an appointee as secretary of state to succeed to the governorship without the constitutionally required consent of both legislative houses.

Governor Vázquez was appointed by Rosselló as his secretary of justice in 2017 and served in that position until she became governor. She belongs to the ruling New Progressive Party, which advocates Puerto Rico becoming a state within the United States. Puerto Rico is currently an unincorporated commonwealth territory of the United States. Pierluisi, Rivera Schatz, and Rosselló are all members of the New Progressive Party.