SAN JUAN – The institutional crisis in Puerto Rico looked set to be resolved in the courts after the island’s Supreme Court agreed on Monday to hear a challenge to the installation of Pedro Pierluisi as governor, replacing the disgraced Ricardo Rossello.
The high court will convene Tuesday to consider a motion brought by Senate chief Thomas Rivera Schatz, who claims 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.
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 protests.
Under the constitution of this US commonwealth, the secretary of state is supposed to become governor in the event the incumbent is unable to continue in office.
The now-former governor announced his resignation on July 24 after weeks of mass protests spurred by the publication of private chats among Rossello, top aides and friends.
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 chat scandal, and the initial plan called for 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 Rivera decided to postpone the confirmation until this week and the Senate was supposed to take up the matter on Monday, but deferred consideration in light of the impending Supreme Court hearing.
The lower house confirmed Pierluisi as secretary of state on Friday, barely an hour before Rossello abandoned office.
A motion in the Senate Monday to confirm Pierluisi would have gone down to overwhelming defeat, Rivera said.
Sen. Juan Dalmau, of the minority pro-independence PIP party, said that Puerto Rico had passed from “a criminal governor to a vulture governor,” apparently alluding to Pierluisi’s work with a law firm representing the hugely unpopular Fiscal Control Board, a panel appointed by Washington to oversee the island’s finances.
“With the greatest deference to the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, I will await their decision, confident that what is best for Puerto Rico will prevail,” Pierluisi said on Monday.
Though the court will hear arguments on Tuesday, a final ruling could take weeks.
Puerto Rican media outlets reported Monday that failed to provide a financial disclosure form prior to his confirmation by the House of Representatives.
Published by the Center for Investigative Journalism, the 800-plus pages of chats that brought down Rossello 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.
Some people found the especially outlandish statements less disturbing than an overall tone that seemed to show an administration more concerned about its image than with addressing the crisis.
And 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.