Puerto Rico’s Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez became the third person in a week to occupy the post of governor of the U.S. territory.
Vázquez was sworn in late Wednesday afternoon, hours after the island’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that part of the law used by embattled Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to name Pedro Pierluisi as his successor was unconstitutional.
“The governor’s oath of office was unconstitutional,” the island’s highest court said, referring to Pierluisi’s swearing-in last Friday. “Therefore, Hon. Pedro R. Pierluisi Urrutia can’t continue his work as Governor after this Opinion and Sentence becomes effective.”
The decision came after Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz filed a lawsuit Monday, asking courts to immediately remove Pierluisi from his post based on the fact that the events didn’t follow the constitution.
“I will assume the position of the Governor of Puerto Rico, as established in our Constitution,” said Vázquez in a statement early Wednesday. “I am willing to assume the position with the responsibility and seriousness that merits.”
Rosselló had chosen Pierluisi to fill the secretary of state vacancy left by Luis G. Rivera Marín, who resigned last month over his involvement in the chat scandal that led to Rosselló’s resignation after weeks of historic protests.
According to Puerto Rico’s Constitution, the island’s secretary of state should be the new governor if the position is vacant. But at the core of the legal dispute was the question of whether Pierluisi was a legitimate secretary of state in position to become Rosselló’s rightful successor.
“It’s unconstitutional to allow a Secretary of State to become Governor without having been confirmed by both legislative chambers,” the Supreme Court said in a press release.
While Pierluisi had been confirmed as secretary of state by Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives an hour before he took his oath as governor Friday, Puerto Rico’s Senate had never taken a vote on the nomination.
The Senate postponed the vote to this week, after Rosselló’s resignation became official, but that vote never happened.
Instead, Schatz went to court, arguing that Pierluisi did not “occupy the position of secretary of state in property” because he wasn’t confirmed by both Houses.
Pierluisi, a former resident commissioner and an attorney, argued that wasn’t the only way that the secretary of state could be ratified.
In his defense, Pierluisi cited the law of succession of 2005, which incorporated a recommendation made by the island’s Department of Justice that waives a secretary of state’s confirmation requirement in case of an emergency.
Pierluisi told reporters Wednesday that he would be reacting to the decision later.
In its decision, the Puerto Rican Supreme Court clarified that the part of the 2005 law of succession that outlines which government officials can occupy the position of governor in the event of a vacancy is constitutional.
Vázquez is both Puerto Rico’s second female governor and second unelected governor in seven decades.
She has voiced her lack of interest in occupying the position and she has faced opposition from Puerto Ricans who see her as part of Rosselló’s inner circle.
“I wish the Honorable Wanda Vázquez Garced the greatest success as Governor of Puerto Rico. I will always be in the best disposition to advance any initiative that seeks to improve the quality of life of our people and to encourage the Federal Government to fulfill its responsibility to provide the support that Puerto Rico needs for its recovery and reconstruction,” said Pierluisi in a statement, minutes before Vázquez took her oath as governor.
Vázquez, who was appointed in 2017, is seen as loyal to Rosselló and the hashtag #WandaRenuncia (or “Wanda, resign”) started trending on Twitter immediately after Rosselló’s address, announcing his resignation last month, ended.
Vázquez initially described the leaked chats that ousted Rosselló as “incorrect” but not illegal. She later announced that she would recuse herself from any investigation because she was mentioned in the chats.