Supreme Court paves way for challenge to election of San Juan mayor
By The Star Staff
The commonwealth Supreme Court, in a 6-2 vote, declined on Wednesday to review a Puerto Rico Court of Appeals decision that found that Manuel Natal Albelo, the San Juan mayoral candidate for the Citizen Victory Movement, had correctly notified San Juan Mayor Miguel Romero Lugo, of the New Progressive Party, of a lawsuit challenging his election.
The Supreme Court’s ruling means that the battle over the control of San Juan is just beginning four months after the general elections. It will be up to Superior Court Judge Anthony Cuevas Ramos to review the challenge on its merits.
“The Court of Appeals correctly resolved this controversy, so it was necessary for the appeal to be declared inadmissible and for the process to continue before the Superior Court as soon as possible,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Maité Oronoz Rodríguez wrote.
Justices Edgardo Rivera and Mildred Pabón Charneco wrote dissenting opinions, while Justice Roberto Feliberti Cintrón abstained from issuing an opinion.
Romero filed an appeal to the Supreme Court after the middle court overturned a lower court ruling that had determined that Natal did not adequately summon Romero. On Jan. 14 of this year, Natal challenged Romero’s election as mayor of San Juan citing alleged irregularities in Unit 77 of San Juan that he had argued could change the results of the capital city election.
The State Elections Commission (SEC) certification for the San Juan mayor’s office indicates that Romero defeated Natal by 3,465 votes, but Natal in his lawsuit had argued that there were “at least 6,593 municipal ballots from Unit 77 that are illegal and whose voters, chain of custody and provenance are impossible to determine.”
“This extraordinary number of illegal ballots and excess votes, by itself, and in conjunction with the other irregularities detailed in this appeal, are enough to change the outcome of the election,” the lawsuit said. “It is a surplus of ballots whose appearance and adjudication, even after the general scrutiny, remain mysterious and indecipherable.”
The Superior Court dismissed the suit, arguing that Romero had not been summoned as established by law, and for that reason, the court lacked jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals disagreed.
The middle court judges noted that the file before their consideration showed that on Jan. 17, 2021, that is, two days after the presentation of the brief called Election Challenge, a representative of Natal delivered the order to show cause and the brief of the challenge, together with its annexes, to Romero, as well as a form titled Diligence. The documents warned Romero that if he did not reply within a certain deadline, a ruling could be handed down in his absence.
The Appeals Court sent the case back to Cuevas.
Justices Rafael Martínez Torres and Erick Kolthoff Caraballo agreed that “it cannot be said that the right to due process of law of the Hon. Romero Lugo was undermined.”
“The personal delivery of the document, together with the order to show cause, provided the Hon. Romero Lugo with adequate notification of the existence of an action against him, so that he could appear and defend himself,” they said.
Rivera, however, said the use of a summons was the appropriate mechanism to guarantee Romero’s right to due process.
Justice Luis Estrella Martínez said the Legislative Assembly, taking into consideration the haste with which this electoral controversy is required to be processed, instead of setting forth in the Electoral Code the inflexible norm that the challenging party issue and file a summons, it only required that the objection brief be transmitted “as well as that maintaining the decision of the [lower court] judge would have had potentially dire” consequences for the administration of justice.
Justice Ángel Colón Pérez backed amending the controversial Electoral Code, which he said was enacted without the consensus of the island’s political parties.
“Now Romero will have to explain the more than 6,500 illegal ballots,” Natal wrote via Twitter.
Romero said that while he disagrees with the island’s top court ruling, he respects it.
“The case will now be handled by our lawyers and I am convinced that in the end we will prevail on its merits and the will of the people, as certified by the SEC in December, will be upheld,” he said.