Finally, Calderón Makes Supreme Choices

by John Marino

July 30, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. With dual nominations to the Supreme Court this week, Gov. Calderón has put to rest one of the most divisive episodes of her gubernatorial term --- the effort to nominate her former Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado to Supreme Court chief justice despite the overwhelming opposition to him.

In naming Associate Justice Federico Hernández Denton to the chief justice spot this week, Calderón has picked someone with impeccable judicial credentials, who has support within the judiciary and Puerto Rico civic society as a whole. He also has broad political support, not only from the Popular Democratic Party. New Progressive Party leaders, from gubernatorial candidate Pedro Rosselló to Senate Minority Leader Kenneth McClintock, are already on the record supporting him, as are Puerto Rico Independence Party officials.

Sure Calderón's second move this week of naming Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodríguez to the top court associate justice spot Hernández Denton will vacate if confirmed as chief justice will spark opposition, particularly from the NPP and conservative religious groups. Opponents will try to paint Rodríguez as a political animal intent on persecuting PDP opponents and as an ultra-liberal far outside the mainstream of Puerto Rican society. She is neither, but rather one of the most competent members of the Calderón Cabinet. The nomination probably won't be --- and shouldn't be --- derailed by the Senate.

Rodríguez has made some blunders. Granting amnesty to PDP donor Jesús Emilio Rivera Class, the fattest cat to feed off the Education scandal masterminded by Víctor Fajardo, was one. The decision to try to prosecute NPP officials on rioting charges was another. But the Justice Department has also built up an impressive record of prosecution, especially in the area of public corruption, under her tenure. And in the case of the Education scam, it will prosecute nearly all the contractors who were indicted by the feds and had their cases subsequently dropped. Rodríguez also has shown equal prosecutorial verve in referring cases for investigation to the Special Independent Prosecutor when PDP figures are involved.

By picking Hernández Denton for chief justice, Calderón is sure to avoid an acrimonious nomination process. And her naming of Rodríguez to an associate justice post should not cause the level of opposition that naming her chief justice would have. Both nominees also deserve to be selected. Hernández Denton, by most accounts, was the pick of current justices on the bench. Under Chief Justice José Andreú García, he handled many of the administrative tasks that go with the top justice post, court observers note. And for Rodríguez, her wait for a judgeship has been a long time coming. She was first tapped by former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón for a federal judgeship, but her nomination was held up during most of the Rosselló years (1993-2000) because of the opposition of then Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barceló.

Not only will Calderón leave the Supreme Court in the experienced hands of Hernández Denton, but also by naming Rodríguez she will double the amount of women on the high court from one to two --- not a bad idea for the island's first female chief executive.

In making the announcement this week, Calderón said she had decided to pick Hernández Denton after a „rigorous process of study‰ revealed him to be the best person for the job. But the governor appears to be just about the only one in Puerto Rico who needed to study the issue so much before reaching that conclusion. Which brings up the question of why Calderón did not act sooner in making these nominations?

When Andreú García retired last year, the name of Hernández Denton immediately popped up as the most worthy to assume the chief justice post. And it stayed there throughout the acrimonious and ultimately futile process to name Ferdinand Mercado chief justice. That points out the biggest question over the latest Calderón nominations to the Supreme Court --- why they were not made a lot sooner. In fact, one can argue that Calderón fumbled a golden --- and rare --- opportunity granted to a first-term governor, the ability to name two picks to the Supreme Court, one the chief justice spot, because of the mandatory retirement age of 70.

In blindly backing Mercado --- first as chief justice, then when that did not work, as associate justice --- Calderón showed a serious gap in her character judgment skills, especially since she fought so hard to make Mercado Supreme Court chief justice against tremendous opposition, even from within her party. His nomination appalled political opponents who sparred with the secretary of state when he was the PDP secretary general with a sharp tongue. And then there were those memos by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, accusing the Mercado State Department of misrepresenting the commonwealth's powers in the international community, specifically the extent of its sovereign powers. On top of that, of course, was his paltry judicial experience, both as attorney and judge. But it was not until revelations tying him to a fatal car crash as a youth -- and his apparent attempts to bury the story --- surfaced that Calderón withdrew her trust in Mercado.

After the Mercado episode, Calderón tapped associate justice Miriam Naveira for the chief justice spot, a temporary move given the fact that Naveira could remain in the post for just seven months before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70, which happened this month. After the Mercado nomination crashed and burned, she tapped Appeals Court Judge Liana Fiol Matta to fill Naviera's associate justice spot --- another solid pick by most accounts.

All these moves had the effect of enveloping the Puerto Rico Supreme Court in the cloud of tentativeness that has come to mark the Calderón administration. This week's nominations finally resolve that situation. It's a shame that a satisfactory resolution could not have come sooner.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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