Puerto Rico’s supreme court on Wednesday overturned the swearing-in of Pedro Pierluisi as the island’s governor less than a week ago, clearing the way for the justice secretary, Wanda Vázquez, to take up the post after weeks of turmoil.
Vázquez took the oath of office in the early evening at the supreme court before leaving without making any public comment. She became just the second woman to hold the office.
“I will continue to focus on helping our people regain their way in an orderly and peaceful fashion,” she said in a statement in which she promised to assume the position with “humility and commitment”.
The high court’s unanimous decision, which could not be appealed, settled the dispute over who will lead the US territory after its political establishment was knocked off balance by big street protests spawned by anger over corruption, mismanagement of funds and a leaked obscenity-laced chat that forced the previous governor and several top aides to resign.
But it was also expected to unleash a new wave of demonstrations because many Puerto Ricans have said they don’t want Vázquez as governor.
Pierluisi said that he had stepped forward to help islanders “in the best good faith and desire to contribute to the future of our homeland”, but that he would respect the court’s ruling.
Pierluisi was appointed secretary of state by the then governor, Ricardo Rosselló, while legislators were in recess, and only the house approved his nomination. Pierluisi was then sworn in as governor on Friday after Rosselló formally resigned in response to angry street protests.
Puerto Rico’s senate sued to challenge Pierluisi’s legitimacy as governor, arguing that its approval was also necessary, and the supreme court held in favor of the senate.
On Monday the senate decided not to hold a vote, although the body’s president, Thomas Rivera Schatz, said Pierluisi had only five of 15 required votes. The same day the supreme court announced it would hear the case.
The senate had also asked the court to declare unconstitutional a portion of a 2005 law saying a secretary of state need not be approved by both house and senate if they have to step in as governor. Puerto Rico’s constitution says a secretary of state has to be approved by both chambers.
The court agreed that the clause was unconstitutional.
Six of its nine judges were appointed by governors from Pierluisi’s party, the pro-statehood New Progressive party, and three by the main opposition Popular Democratic party. The senator leading the challenge to Pierluisi is in his party.
Vázquez became justice secretary in January 2017 and has limited experience leading government agencies. She previously worked as a district attorney for two decades at Puerto Rico’s justice department, handling domestic and sexual abuse cases, and in 2010 was appointed director of the Office for Women’s Rights.
Some critics say that as justice secretary she was not aggressive enough in pursuing corruption investigations involving members of her New Progressive party, and that she did not prioritize gender violence cases.
Last November, the Office of Government Ethics said it had received a complaint about possible ethical violations involving Vázquez, who was accused of intervening in a case involving a suspect charged with stealing government property at a home where Vázquez’s daughter lived.
Vázquez appeared in court to face charges including two violations of a government ethics law. In December a judge found there was no evidence to arrest her.
Rosselló’s resignation followed nearly two weeks of protests amid anger over corruption, mismanagement of funds and a leaked obscenity-laced chat in which he and 11 other men including government officials mocked women, gay people and victims of Hurricane Maria, among others.