August 5, 2019 / 8:43 AM / a month ago

Puerto Rico high court to weigh legitimacy of U.S. territory's governor

SAN JUAN (Reuters) - The future of Pedro Pierluisi as Puerto Rico’s governor will be up to the U.S. territory’s supreme court after the island’s Senate on Monday declined to vote on his confirmation, adding to the political turmoil that has swirled for weeks.

FILE PHOTO: Pedro Pierluisi holds a news conference after swearing in as Governor of Puerto Rico in San Juan, Puerto Rico August 2, 2019. REUTERS/Gabriella N. Baez/File Photo

During a special session, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz said the lack of a vote by his chamber was equivalent to a rejection of Pierluisi’s nomination as secretary of state and next in line to replace Ricardo Rossello, who resigned as governor on Friday.

Schatz acknowledged that the supreme court would ultimately rule on the matter. Pierluisi also said it would be up to the court.

“With the utmost deference to the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, I will wait for its decision, trusting that what is best for Puerto Rico will prevail,” Pierluisi said in a statement.

The high court on Monday put a lawsuit filed by Schatz on a fast track, ordering all parties to submit their arguments by midday on Tuesday. The lawsuit seeks to oust Pierluisi from office on constitutional grounds because both legislative chambers had not consented to the nomination.

Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez would be next in line to become governor.

CHAT MESSAGES

Pierluisi, 60, was hand-picked by Rossello, who resigned after days of protests demanding he step down. After his nomination was confirmed by the Puerto Rico House, Pierluisi was sworn in as governor on Friday, even though the Senate had not ratified the appointment.

Pierluisi’s becoming governor has been controversial mainly because he formerly gave legal advice to the island’s unpopular, federally created board supervising its finances, including its bankruptcy cases in federal court.

His installment as governor capped more than a week of political chaos after Rossello said he would resign over offensive chat messages that drew around a third of the island’s 3.2 million people to the streets in protest.

The chats among Rossello and top aides took aim at female politicians and gay celebrities like Ricky Martin and also poked fun at ordinary Puerto Ricans.

Publication of the messages unleashed local anger building for years over the island’s painful bankruptcy process, ineffective hurricane recovery efforts and corruption scandals linked to a string of past governors, including Rossello’s father.

CONFIRMATION PROCESS

Schatz said that Pierluisi failed to meet the requirements to be considered as secretary of state and thus next in line for governor as he “has yet to submit a single document” as part of the confirmation process.

FILE PHOTO: Pedro Pierluisi gives a statement to attend his nomination as Secretary of State during a public hearing of the Commission of Government of the House of Representatives called upon by the President of the House, Johnny Mendez, hours before Ricardo Rossello steps down as Governor of Puerto Rico, in San Juan, Puerto Rico August 2, 2019. REUTERS/Gabriella N. Baez/File Photo

Pierluisi said in a statement on Monday that he was sworn in as secretary of state when both legislative chambers were in recess, giving him “full possession” of the post under law.

He said he was properly sworn in as governor under Puerto Rico’s constitution and a 2005 law that Schatz’s lawsuit claims is unconstitutional.

Schatz initially filed his lawsuit on Sunday in a San Juan court, then successfully petitioned the supreme court to hear it directly. The lawsuit contends that Pierluisi’s swearing-in was invalid because the U.S. territory’s constitution requires him to have fully taken the position of secretary of state before Rossello’s resignation in order for him to become the new governor.

Reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz in San Juan; additional reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman

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