Puerto Rico swears in new governor, its third in less than a week, after court ruling

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Puerto Rico has a new governor — its third in less than a week — after the territory’s Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that Pedro Pierluisi was sworn in on unconstitutional grounds.

The ruling cleared the way for Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez Garced to become governor. Vázquez Garced, who faces widespread mistrust from Puerto Ricans and previously said she did not want the job, was sworn in at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

“Puerto Rico needs certainty and stability,” Vázquez Garced said in a statement. “Our actions will be directed to that end, and it will always come first.”

Before he resigned Friday in response to sweeping protests, embattled former governor Ricardo Rosselló appointed Pierluisi as secretary of state, the next in line for the governor’s seat. But only Puerto Rico’s House approved Pierluisi’s nomination before he was sworn in as governor on Friday.

Rosselló and Pierluisi pointed to a portion of the law of succession, amended in 2005, that permits a secretary of state to become governor without confirmation from both the House and the Senate.

Puerto Rico’s protests weren’t just about the governor. Here’s how we got to this point.
After weeks of unprecedented protests in Puerto Rico, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D) announced his resignation on July 24. Here’s what you need to know. (Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

On Sunday, Puerto Rico’s Senate filed a lawsuit challenging Pierluisi’s swearing in. The Supreme Court unanimously sided with the Senate, ruling that the 2005 amendment was unconstitutional.

Moments before Vázquez Garced was sworn in, Pierluisi released a statement announcing he was stepping aside.

“This is a time when we must all unite for Puerto Rico, leaving behind any partisan, ideological or personal agendas,” he said. “In other words, this is a time for unity of purpose for the benefit of Puerto Rico, until our people have the opportunity to choose their future leaders in next year’s elections.”

Vázquez Garced’s ascent to the governor’s office was expected to provoke more protests from Puerto Ricans, many of whom consider her to be an extension of Rosselló’s tainted administration.

Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, one of the leading opponents of Pierluisi’s swearing-in, celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision in a statement.

“With absolute LEGITIMACY, we will find REAL PEACE AND STABILITY,” Rivera Schatz said, arguing that the decision marks an end to the leadership associated with Rosselló’s political scandal. “NOW is when it is really finished.”

Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, congratulated Vázquez Garced and offered to collaborate with her. She also said she supported the Supreme Court’s decision.

“The Senate did the right thing by taking out the political and partisan debate so that the Supreme Court can make the decision in accordance with the Constitution,” she said.

Rosselló announced late last month that he would resign Aug. 2, following a political scandal triggered by a leaked chat that contained offensive messages about his opponents and Hurricane Maria victims. The comments set off 13 consecutive days of demonstrations on the island and prompted several of Rosselló’s aides to step down.

But as soon as Rosselló said he would resign, protesters began targeting Vázquez Garced, who faces accusations that she mishandled the prosecution of members of Rosselló’s New Progressive Party, to which she belongs. She is also the only secretary of justice to be charged with — and later cleared of — criminal activity, and has had several public spats with members of her own party.

Vázquez Garced previously worked as a district attorney at Puerto Rico’s justice department, specializing in domestic and sexual violence cases, and as the director of the Office for Women’s Rights. She will be Puerto Rico’s second female governor.

Pierluisi, a 60-year-old lawyer and veteran politician, was seen by many Puerto Ricans as a less controversial choice for governor than Vázquez Garced. He served as secretary of justice for three years under Rosselló’s father, former governor Pedro J. Rosselló, and as a nonvoting representative for Puerto Rico in Congress from 2009 to 2017.

But he faced criticism for what some lawmakers saw as a conflict of interest — his law firm represents the financial board that was created in 2016 to oversee the island’s struggling finances. His brother-in-law also is head of the board.

Pierluisi is also a member of Rosselló’s political party, the New Progressive Party, which favors statehood for Puerto Rico and holds majorities in both the House and the Senate. The opposition party favors a looser relationship with the federal government.

In a video message delivered just before Vázquez Garced was sworn in, Pierluisi said he took office last week solely for “the well-being of Puerto Rico.”

“My goal has been what we all want, for our government to forge ahead, protecting our most vulnerable citizens and giving continuity to the recovery, reconstruction and economic development of Puerto Rico,” he said. “These past few days, I have given my all, I have called on the commitment of our public servants, and I have sought to give peace and stability to our people.”

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