A Supreme Decision

by John Marino

June 11, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. The Puerto Rico Supreme Court did much to bolster its public image this week with a sober five to one ruling upholding the House of Representative’s rejection of Secretary of State nominee Marisara Pont.

Everyone knows the High Court has more Popular Democratic Party appointees than New Progressive Party appointees, so the major boost to its image stems from the fact that the ruling was favorable to the NPP.

That’s particularly the case in these times of poisoned politics. Not only is partisanship at an all time high, threatening to jettison even basic government functions such as passing a budget, but the political wars have been waged inside major political parties as well, most notably exemplified by the NPP fratricide over the Senate presidency.

It was a perfect moment for the High Court to choose a high road. And it did.

The court, of course, did not pass judgment on the wisdom of the House's rejection of Pont, or on House Speaker José Aponte’s weak handling of the chaotic vote on the floor that night Pont was rejected.

Rather, the court paid ultimate respect to the separation of powers contained in the Commonwealth Constitution by opting not to trump a decision by a legislative chamber, particularly one involved in the chamber’s advice and consent role over the executive branch. (Both the House and the Senate must approve the secretary of State, next in line of succession for the governor.)

The ruling upheld the concept that the House is the ultimate arbitrator of its actions and recognized that it could operate within wide parameters established by its members.

There was no compelling reason to reject Pont, a respected public relations professional who cleared the Senate with only one vote against her.

However, NPP representatives, in comments to reporters, had been telegraphing that they would use the Pont nomination as a bargaining chip in other negotiations with La Fortaleza. They cited several vetoes by Gov. Acevedo Vilá, including his rejection of a tripartisan status initiative, unanimously passed by the Legislature, as well as legislation to delay implementation of a revised Penal Code and keep services flowing to citizens. They said the proposed budget would be a big part of those negotiations.

On May 9, following a disputed voice vote, Pont got 24 votes in her favor and 16 votes against. Aponte then declared that she needed an absolute majority of House members, not just a majority of those present. A second vote was then called, following a request for reconsideration by a single representative, and this time Pont received 20 votes in favor and 22 against. Aponte discarded complaints that three NPP representatives who changed their votes to reject the nominee thought they were voting to reject the motion for reconsideration.

The following day, Acevedo Vilá, Pont and House Minority Leader filed suit with the Supreme Court, asking it to order the House to certify Pont as secretary of State. They argued that Pont was confirmed during the first vote.

But the Supreme Court ruled any member can ask for a reconsideration, and that the second vote was "or all intents and purposes the final determination" of the House.

Acevedo Vilá grudgingly accepted the verdict, calling it "conservative" and saying it would allow a Legislature with bad intentions to "damage the country." Aponte, meanwhile, said the ruling showed "the serious and responsible work being done by the House."

In contrast, Pont reacted with tact to the ruling, thanking her supporters, announcing her respect for the ruling and saying she would leave public life "in peace." It was a graceful exit, showing in the end she was fit for the job.

The Supreme Court ruling, in the midst of the fierce battling between the PDP- controlled executive and NPP-controlled legislative branches, is a tonic for the Puerto Rico public.

The decision cannot be divorced from the disputed gubernatorial race that spawned the divided government Puerto Rico is currently experiencing. Sen. Pedro Rosselló has never conceded defeat in the race for La Fortaleza, and he cites in his quest for the Senate presidency, his ability to govern Puerto Rico from the Legislature. The Supreme Court’s ruling was more cognizant of the constitution's separation of powers.

It was probably no accident that the majority opinion was written by Chief Justice Federico Hernández Denton, who was criticized for the quick Supreme Court ruling upholding the validity of the pivazo ballots when the election was being contested by the NPP in federal court. Acevedo Vilá was a law clerk for the current chief justice, and he led the charge against his former boss’s nomination of Ferdinand Mercado, which paved the way for Hernández Denton to be named chief justice. This case was a perfect vehicle for the new chief justice to assert his independence.

"We cannot become arbitrators of all internal disputes legislators have over interpretation and application of legislative rules related to parliamentary procedure," Hernández Denton wrote in rejecting Acevedo Vilá's request.

The chief justice, however, also made clear that the High Court was the "final interpreter" of legislative action, but said this ability would be used sparingly.

"We exercise this faculty when the actions of other branches of government present clear problems of constitutionality and not mere procedural disputes or interpretations."

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

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback