SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez became Puerto Rico's new governor Wednesday, just the second woman to hold the office, after weeks of political turmoil and hours after the island's Supreme Court declared Pedro Pierluisi's swearing-in a week ago unconstitutional.
Accompanied by her husband, Judge Jorge Diaz, and her daughter, Vazquez took the oath of office in the early evening at the Supreme Court before leaving without making any public comment.
“Puerto Rico needs assurance and stability,” she said earlier in a statement. “Our actions will be aimed toward that end and it will always come first.”
The high court's unanimous decision, which could not be appealed, settled the dispute over who will lead the U.S. 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 Vazquez as governor.
“It is concluded that the swearing in as governor by Hon. Pedro R. Pierluisi Urrutia, named secretary of state in recess, is unconstitutional,” the court said in a brief statement.
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.
“I must step aside and support the Justice Secretary of Puerto Rico, the Honorable Wanda Vazquez Garced,” he said in a statement before she was sworn in.
People began cheering in some parts of San Juan after the ruling was announced, and Puerto Ricans were expected to gather later outside the governor's seaside mansion in the capital's colonial district — some to celebrate the court's decision and others to protest the incoming governor.
In the early afternoon, someone yelled through a loudspeaker near the residence: “Pierluisi out! The constitution of Puerto Rico should be respected!”
“It was the correct decision,” said Xiomary Morales, a waitress and student who works a block away, adding that those in power “are used to doing what they want.”
Puerto Ricans are physically and emotionally exhausted and want an end to the political turmoil, she said. “They should just hold fresh elections, hit restart like a PlayStation game.”
But Tita Caraballo, a retired nurse from the inland eastern city of Gurabo, disagreed with the court.
“I think they are playing with the people and, I don't know, maybe they have someone they want and that is why they are doing this,” Caraballo said.
Pierluisi was appointed secretary of state by then-Gov. Ricardo Rossello while legislators were in recess, and only the House approved his nomination. Pierluisi was then sworn in as governor Friday after Rossello formally resigned in response to the protests.
Puerto Rico's Senate sued to challenge Pierluisi's legitimacy as governor, arguing that its approval was also necessary, and the Supreme Court decided in favor of the Senate.
On Monday, the Senate decided not to hold a confirmation vote on Pierluisi. 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.
Law's clause ruled unconstitutional
The court agreed that the law's clause was unconstitutional.
“Today this Tribunal speaks with a single voice, loud and clear,” Justice Roberto Feliberti Cintron said in his written opinion. “The constitutional norms do not allow for absurdities and legal technicalities to contravene our Democratic System of Government.”
In a separate opinion, Justice Erick Kolthoff Caraballo said Puerto Rico has suffered upheaval “like never in its modern history” and “the People need calm and security that things will soon return to order.”
Rivera Schatz praised the court ruling in a triumphant statement.
“With absolute LEGITIMACY, we will seek TRUE PEACE and STABILITY,” he said.
Six of the court's nine judges were appointed by governors from the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, to which both Pierluisi and Rivera Schatz belong.
Vazquez, a 59-year-old former prosecutor, is to serve out the remainder of Rossello's term, with the next election scheduled for 2020.
New governor has limited experience
Vazquez 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 that 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.
William Gonzalez Roman, a retiree also from Gurabo, wasn't bullish on the idea of Vazquez as governor.
“We will see. You have to give everyone a chance, right?” Gonzalez said. “Let's see what decisions (she makes), but I tell you that job is big with a lot of responsibility.”
Last November, the Office of Government Ethics said it had received a complaint about possible ethical violations involving Vazquez, who was accused of intervening in a case involving a suspect charged with stealing government property at a home where Vazquez's daughter lived.
Vazquez 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.
Weeks of protest
Rossello's resignation followed nearly two weeks of protests after the public emergence of the chat in which he and 11 other men including government officials mocked women, gay people and victims of Hurricane Maria, among others. More than two dozen officials resigned in the wake of the leak, including former Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marin.
“NOW is when that detestable group from the chat that lied, mocked, machinated, conspired, violated the law and betrayed Puerto Rico is truly ended and will leave government,” Rivera Schatz, the Senate president, said Wednesday.