The secretary of state is first in line to exercise the role of acting governor when the Governor of Puerto Rico is temporarily unavailable, whether because of being away from Puerto Rico or due to another temporary incapacity. The secretary of state is the only official who can automatically become governor if the elected governor is permanently incapable of remaining in office due to death, resignation, or conviction as part of an impeachment process. Prior to the adoption of the local constitution, the Foraker Act of 1900 and the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 provided for the position of executive secretary, who carried out the roles assigned to contemporary secretaries of state.
Since 1952, secretaries of state have been appointed by the governor, subject to the advice and consent of both the Senate of Puerto Rico and the House of Representatives of Puerto Rico. A secretary of state appointed by the governor while the legislative assembly is in recess may take office and serve until the nomination is rejected by any of the legislative chambers or the next legislative regular session ends, whichever happens first.
Secretaries of state of the United States Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, in addition to heading the State Department, one of the smallest central government agencies, and exercising the role as the territory's lieutenant governor, are usually assigned additional functions by the governor. For example, Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín had Secretary of State Roberto Sánchez Vilella, a civil engineer, serve simultaneously as Secretary of Public Works. Gov. Pedro Rosselló had Secretary of State Norma Burgos serve for several years as chair of the Puerto Rico Planning Board. Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá's second secretary of state, Fernando Bonilla, also served as executive director of the Puerto Rico Ports Authority. However, perhaps no other secretary of state has been assigned more tasks than immediate past Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock, who served as chair of the incoming Fortuño administration's Incoming Committee on Government Transition, coordinated the government's digital TV transition work group, headed the state government's Census 2010 team, chaired the government's 2010 Central and Caribbean Games Coordinating Committee, was tasked with making the final awatds of Public-Private Partnership contracts and chaired the Government Reorganization Committee, among other assignments delegated by Gov. Luis Fortuño. So far, Governor Alejandro García Padilla has put current secretary Bernier in charge of evaluating the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport Public-Private Partnership contract and overseeing social agencies, such as the Health, Family Services, Education and Sports and Recreation departments.