Calderon’s Supreme Court Shuffle: Another Half Step

by John Marino

December 19, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Gov. Calderón's latest nominations this week have enveloped the Puerto Rico Supreme Court in the cloud of tentativeness that has come to mark her administration.

Ordinarily, the appointment of the high court's sole female to the chief justice spot by Puerto Rico's first female governor would seem an appropriate move, especially given Miriam Naveira's impeccable credentials.

But because she will reach in seven months the Supreme Court mandatory retirement age of 70, it only serves to extend the leadership vacuum on the island's top court.

Naveira's appointment was paired with that of Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado to replace her as associate justice, which has fueled suspicions that it is another ploy to get Mercado the chief justice post.

The failed first nomination of Mercado in October to the chief justice post will not hamper his entrance to the high court. Popular Democratic Party opposition to his being given the top judicial post, led by 2004 gubernatorial candidate and party president Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, won't hold up in his nomination as associate justice.

The first time around, despite the strong PDP opposition to Mercado's appointment as chief justice, as well as that of the political opposition, he fell only one vote shy of confirmation. Most PDP opponents said they would have no problem if Mercado were named to the top court as associate justice.

Acevedo Vilá immediately approved the Calderón nominations this week. The big question remains what happens next summer, so close to November 2004, when Calderón is expected to push Mercado again for the chief justice spot after Naveira retires. Will the PDP opt to support its lame-duck governor, or fight against the choice once again?

The administration's popularity level will likely determine the answer. But it's clear that if the governor does indeed attempt to push Mercado once again as chief justice, she is making a cold political calculation that PDP officials won't want to start a battle with her so close to the election.

The Naveira nomination would have been much more palatable, if it were done back in October, rather than trying to push Mercado to the chief justice spot directly, despite the warning signs that it would be blocked. And it's more evidence that the administration has lost its political footing.

If Calderón had chosen Naveira back in October, she could have argued that the island's sole woman on the high court was such an outstanding candidate that she could accomplish a lot during her limited time left on the court.

But that is argument she can't make today, given that her top pick for the post was Mercado. And by waiting three months to appoint Naveira, the governor has cut seriously into the time she could serve as chief justice, which also leaves the impression that the second round of nominations is really about pushing Mercado on to the high court anyway the governor can.

At the least, Calderón's latest moves indicate that she is at least going to try to give Mercado the chief justice post after Naveira's retirement next year. Appointing a short-term top judge is a good way for the governor to bide her time, hoping the political landscape changes.

Reporters covering the announcement Tuesday bombarded the governor with questions about what looked like a new way to get the man who helped get the governor elected the top judge's job. But she was not answering.

"I am not going to talk in advance about any event for next year," the governor said. "I don't have to share, and I am not going to share the reasons why I am nominating Naveira now."

Oh, really? The governor may not have to reveal the motivation behind this week's Supreme Court nominations, but she owes it to the Puerto Rico public to explain her reasoning.

All political parties, a wide representation of civic society and legal and constitutional experts resoundingly rejected Mercado's nomination to chief justice in October. The governor should respect the nearly unanimous public opinion against the Mercado choice and not attempt to renominate him next year.

The case against Mercado - his lack of judicial and legal experience, and his long political resume - can be made against his associate justice nomination as well. The governor should not think that a half-year on the island's top court would be enough for Mercado to overcome his serious lack of a judicial and legal career.

Whether the governor is audacious enough to try giving the chief justice spot to Mercado next year remains to be seen. It will be a choice that could have big implications over the electoral chances of the PDP as well as how the public views the Calderón administration from an historical perceptive.

The Naveira nomination, unfortunately, is just another half step, and the Puerto Rican public has yet to know who will truly emerge as the new leader of the Supreme Court. It's a story, unfortunately, that has already been told in other important government agencies under Calderón, such as the Police Department, which will have four different leaders in as many years under the governor.

John Marino, City 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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