Oronoz Sworn in as Chief Justice
SAN JUAN – Maite Oronoz was sworn in Friday as chief justice of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, becoming the first openly gay person to take control of the judicial branch.
“My objective as chief justice is not merely to keep the ship afloat. My goal is to fulfill what the country expects of new generations, to repair the ship, reinforce it and take it to new directions in tune with the times,” she said. During her speech, Oronoz vowed to make the courts more transparent and accessible to the needy and the media.
The ceremony had tense moments. Associate Justice Mildred Pabón Charneco criticized Oronoz in a statement for failing to defend the top court from Senate claims that justices were trying to sabotage her confirmation. Her message was read by Justice Erick Kolthoff because Pabón Charneco did not attend the ceremony citing prior commitments.
Pabón Charneco blasted Senate President Eduardo Bhatia for using his legislative immunity to accuse some of the justices of conspiring against the nomination of Oronoz. She noted that Bhatia, who is also a lawyer, is required to protect the integrity of the courts.
“Adding to those attacks is the fact that [Oronoz] failed to stand up and protect this court,” she stated.
Associate Justice Anabelle Rodríguez, who was acting as chief justice, said that because Pabón Charneco was not present, she was going to speak to her directly.
“I reserve the right to answer her face to face,” she said.
Amid criticisms against the Senate for confirming Oronoz without a public hearing more than a month ago, Bhatia said the upper chamber was forced to act because some of the justices associated with the New Progressive Party (NPP) were planning to take over the judicial branch. Bhatia and the Senate majority are associated with the ruling Popular Democratic Party (PDP), the NPP’s main political rival.
The quickness of the confirmation also sought to prevent a possible constitutional challenge, in light of a lawsuit that two NPP gubernatorial candidates had submitted to the Puerto Rico Supreme Court.
Fifteen members of the PDP delegation voted in favor of the confirmation despite being rejected entirely by the NPP and Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP) minority delegations, and despite three PDP senators – Luis Daniel Rivera Filomeno, Pedro Rodríguez and Ramón Ruiz – also voting against it.
Justice Kolthoff criticized Bhatia at the time for accusing some of the justices of planning a conspiracy against Oronoz.
“I have to say those remarks for the legislative record and before the media are false, and as such are unfair and disrespectful,” he said, adding that he did not take Bhatia’s words “personally.”
On Friday, Kolthoff said he will be working with the new justice, the youngest to be appointed to head the government branch, as well as the other justices.
Oronoz’s girlfriend, Gina Méndez Miró, described her as having a high sense of social justice who routinely helps the needy and is close with her family. “Rest assured the courts are going to be in good hands,” she said.