Puerto Rico justice secretary becomes governor after court ruling

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Protesters march in San Juan, Puerto Rico in July 2018

Protesters march in San Juan, Puerto Rico in July 2018 (AFP Photo/Ricardo ARDUENGO)

Miami (AFP) - Puerto Rico's Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez was sworn in as governor on Wednesday hours after the Supreme Court rejected a brief claim to the office by another official.

Vazquez said that she was assuming office "with the greatest respect and determination to serve my people and to push Puerto Rico forward," in a communique released after her swearing-in.

Vazquez's inauguration was the latest twist in the political saga rocking the self-governing United States territory, and came after its top court ruled that last week's swearing-in of Pedro Pierluisi was unconstitutional.

The justices unanimously found that since the territory's Senate never confirmed Pierluisi, "the assumption of the office of governor was unconstitutional."

The political contretemps followed massive street protests that forced the resignation of governor Ricardo Rossello, who left office on Friday after coming under fire over corruption scandals and leaked electronic chats with associates.

Shortly before leaving office, Rossello effectively made Pierluisi his successor by appointing him secretary of state, the next to the governor in the line of succession.

Vazquez, next in line after Pierluisi, had publicly stated her disinterest in the governorship, but was nonetheless confirmed shortly after the court ruling, in compliance with the law.

Pierluisi stepped down calling for unity and for Puerto Ricans to discard their "political-partisan, ideological or personal agendas."

"When I assumed the position of governor last Friday, I did it based on the express language of Puerto Rico's Constitution and the law in force at that time," Pierluisi said in a statement, adding that he acted under laws that "are presumed constitutional, and therefore valid."

Rossello, Pierluisi and Vazquez are all members of Puerto Rico's New Progressive Party (PNP), which favors annexation of Puerto Rico as the 51st US state.

Jenniffer Gonzalez, the congresswoman representing Puerto Rico in Washington, said that the Senate "did the right thing by taking out the political and partisan debate so that the Supreme Court can make the decision in accordance with the Constitution."

Puerto Rico has been shaken by weeks of street protests set off by the leak of 889 pages of hacked text messages in which Rossello and his inner circle made fun of women, gays, hurricane victims, journalists and politicians.

The leak touched a deep well of public discontent that has brewed since the devastating 2017 Hurricane Maria, which left 3,000 dead and Puerto Rico in shambles.

A debt crisis, government corruption scandals and a painfully slow recovery from Maria have added to the island's political woes.