The legitimacy of the newly sworn-in governor Pedro Pierluisi is in the hands of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, which yesterday accepted a lawsuit filed by the Senate challenging the constitutionality of the law used by former Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevares to appoint his successor.
The Supreme Court gave the Senate and the government - represented by the Department of Justice - and Pierluisi as sworn-in governor until today at noon to file their arguments for or against the constitutionality of Law 7 of 2005.
This law amended a 1952 legislation to establish the line of succession if the position of governor is vacant and added a clause that could allow a Secretary of State not confirmed to become governor. The piece appears to be unconstitutional, according to constitutional experts.
"Although it is regrettable that this matter has to be solved in our courts, I hope that it will be treated with the greatest urgency and diligence for the good of the people of Puerto Rico," Pierluisi said in written statements and added that Puerto Ricans can feel sure that he will see the government will continue to “fulfill its mission without interruption or delay.”
Pierluisi was appointed Secretary of State last week during the legislative recess and was only confirmed - in extraordinary session - by the House of Representatives. The Constitution states that a nominee for that office must have been confirmed by both legislative bodies.
According to the lawsuit filed by Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, not requiring confirmation from the Senate "contravenes not only Law 7- 2005, but Puerto Rico's Constitution.”
"Such action flagrantly usurped the constitutional prerogatives of the Senate. As a consequence of this, and in the case this interpretation is considered correct, it would then proceed to declare the unconstitutionality of Law 7-2005," adds the lawsuit.
Jenniffer González reacts
Washington D.C. Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González also said yesterday that the Supreme Court has to decide the controversy.
González avoided answering directly if she believes Pierluisi usurped power by swearing in the governor.
"This is going to be a matter that will be resolved by the island´s courts. The political leadership generating more controversy over a controversy that does not provide stability to anyone brings nothing to this" she replied. "The Supreme Court has to resolve immediately so that the process is carried out properly," she added.
If the Supreme Court declares the law constitutional, Pierluisi could remain in office. Otherwise, he would no longer be in the line of succession and Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, who has expressed no interest in the position, would be the successor.
Although these seem to be the most likely scenarios, they are not necessarily the only options the Supreme Court has.
27 out of 29 senators attended the extraordinary session. Majority spokesman Carmelo Ríos, who is not in Puerto Rico according to spokeswoman Marimar Alicea, was one of the two senators who missed the session.
Before the session, they held a caucus of the New Progressive majority. El Nuevo Día learned that, before that meeting, senators like Evelyn Vázquez, Abel Nazario and Luis Daniel Muñiz regretted Ríos' prolonged absence. Rivera Schatz did not participate in those conversations and removing him as spokesman was not discussed in the caucus.
According to sources, Ríos, Pierluisi's close ally during the primary election against Rosselló Nevares, told some people that he favored Rivera Schatz's position against the former governor, and told others that he favors Pierluisi.
Without Senate confirmation
Yesterday, the Senate decided not to vote on the appointment of the former Resident Commissioner as Secretary of State, nor to "ratify" him as governor, as Pierluisi requested.
After debating for over an hour and a half, Senate President Rivera Schatz made it clear that Pierluisi only had five votes and would need 15 votes to be confirmed.
Senators Zoé Laboy, Migdalia Padilla, Miguel Romero, Luis Daniel Muñiz and Henry Neumann would have favored Pierluisi.
"The Senate never confirmed Pedro Pierluisi's appointment, his oath is invalid, he is acting illegally as governor. It is my duty to take him to court and it is my duty to protect the Senate, the Constitution and the people of Puerto Rico. That is what I swore to do and I am not going to break that oath," Rivera Schatz said.
"I want to put an end to the instability and I want Puerto Rico to have peace, but I really do. I want to clean the house, but really clean the house," the senatorial leader added.
Constitutional experts noted that the vote in the Senate would have been irrelevant since Pierluisi is no longer Secretary of State since he was sworn in as governor on Friday.
Last week, Pierluisi said that if the Senate did not confirm him, he would resign.
The newly sworn-in governor said that in view of the fact that the Senate did not vote and that the great majority of senators did not have the opportunity to express themselves, he will await the Supreme Court´s decision “trusting that the best for Puerto Rico will prevail.”
Once the extraordinary session ended, several lawmakers considered the nomination had been rejected because it did not have the express confirmation of the Senate. However, the Senate Rules state that if that body does not take "definitive action" on an appointment included in the extraordinary session, this appointment remains in effect until the end of the next ordinary session.
The Popular Democratic Party (PDP) and Independent Sen. Jose Vargas Vidot opposed Pierluisi.
"Those marches and demonstrations, those true expressions of the Puerto Rican people were for a governor to resign and not to return to the disgraceful practice of permanent corruption," Vargas Vidot said.
Popular minority spokesman Eduardo Bhatia criticized the fact that the Senate did not act last week on Pierluisi's nomination. "The question is whether this crisis we are going through today is a crisis or a created crisis. It seems to me that it is a created crisis," he said.
Laboy said that "a vote against Pedro Pierluisi would be to say that he cannot be in La Fortaleza. It's not up to me, it's up to the Court to decide that.”
Meanwhile, Independent Juan Dalmau, who considers Law 7 unconstitutional, said the Supreme Court could interpret the House's confirmation as sufficient. "It could happen that a court that wants to turn the page or give a broader interpretation of the unique historical conditions Puerto Rico faces says that the constitutional text must be interpreted as a democratic endorsement and that with the endorsement of only one of the chambers, in this case, the House of Representatives which is the most representative, is enough," he said.
"I think it would be madness to do so, but the courts tend to be creative. We have to wait and see," he said.