Just like the weather, the swearing-in ceremony for the 32nd Legislature was clouded Monday, as the clear absence of one senator from St. Thomas-St. John and the reflections of speakers concerned about the general state of the territory hung over the event.
Monday’s program was filled with the usual fanfare – musical numbers, marching bands and the ceremonial red carpet, followed by the official administration of the oath of office by V.I. Supreme Court Justice Rhys S. Hodge. But just as the sunny skies darkened over Emancipation Garden before the ceremony began, so too did the tone of the day change with a keynote speech from former Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, who spoke about the role that a legislative body plays within a democratic society.
“The swearing-in of a legislative body during the Centennial year gives us cause to muse as to the cardinal role of that legislative body within a democratic society,” Turnbull said. Starting first with the celebration of this year’s Transfer Day celebrations, Turnbull added that after 100 years, there aren’t many Virgin Islanders who can say they “regret” living under the U.S. flag. But “glaring shortcomings” in the area of political advancement still “casts a pall,” he said.
“It must be our hope that in the near future, this shadow can and will be removed,” he said.
Turnbull said Monday’s ceremony also marked the 80th anniversary of the swearing-in in 1937 of the first municipal council of the territory, along with the first legislative assemblies of the aid
“It is fitting that during this year that we pay homage to those legislative giants of the past who are no longer with us, but on whose shoulders all of you stand,” Turnbull said to the bandstand filled with 14 senators-elect, their family members and several dignitaries. Calling names ranging from D. Hamilton Jackson to Lucinda Millin, Turnbull said that these past legislators were filled with “integrity, courage and conviction” and “served the people well” and, based upon the example that they’ve set, the role of the Legislature is now to “create and approve legislation that will improve the general welfare of all people, beginning with the most needy.”
“They should be given priority always, and I know not all of the senators now agree,” Turnbull said, calling attention to condition of the territory’s two hospitals, the need for better mental health care facilities and the government’s ailing pension system.
“If these areas are not addressed, our new year and new years to come will not be happy and prosperous,” Turnbull said. Calling for the branches of government to work in “unison,” Turnbull also called for the audience to join him in sending “blessings” to the new senators, which would help guide their work.
After the swearing in, Delegate Stacey Plaskett said Turnbull hit the nail on the head with some of the issues facing residents, and added that the territory will soon be starting to see some challenges on the federal level that senators will also have to address. Republicans now control both Congress and the White House and have been talking about cutting the deficit and national debt. They could soon decrease the federal funds coming into the territory.
“We have a lot of federal money that’s coming into the territory and we have to make sure we’re in compliance with how that’s spent so that money doesn’t leave us,” Plaskett said. “We also have to make the members of the Legislature aware of what is possible and not probable in the Congress. We might not be getting more money in to the territory so have to be more creative about how we use the money and make sure there are no reductions.”
Meanwhile, several senators spoke about the absence of Senator-elect Kevin Rodriquez, who was noticeably absent from Monday’s program.
In a last-minute ruling Sunday night, the Virgin Islands Supreme Court said Rodriquez could not take the oath of office with the other senators Monday, despite a ruling by a lower court last week.
Superior Court Judge Kathleen Mackay ruled in favor of Rodriquez last week, stating testimony from several witnesses, including Rodriquez’s wife, showed the senator-elect has lived in the U.S. Virgin Islands since 2013, meeting the residency requirement to run for Senate.
The Supreme Court ruling Sunday night said Mackay couldn’t do that, using the rule of judicial estoppel, which precludes a party from taking a position in a case that is contrary to a position it has taken in earlier legal proceedings. The Superior Court had previously issued an injunction barring Rodriquez from taking office.
“Of course, it has been challenging and stressful for these past few weeks in regards to our Democratic candidate Kevin Rodriquez, especially in changing the programs and organizing,” incoming Senate President Myron Jackson said Monday. “And likewise, just the issue of a separation of power, where we’re now seeing how the branches of government work as separate but equal entities, has been eye-opening. I think we are all happy that this portion of our swearing-in activities are over, and that we can go on to the Legislature for organization as we wait for word on how we will proceed.”
In a statement issued Monday, Rodriquez said his electoral and legal opponent, Janelle Sarauw, "is attempting to win a seat in the Legislature through the courts because she lost in the ballot box."
He called for the Legislature to make a decision on the matter.
"The time for the courts to act has passed," Rodriquez said. "It is now time for the Legislature, not the courts, to rule on whether I have met the qualifications to be seated as a member of the 32nd Legislature. To that end, I sent a letter to Senate President Myron Jackson today, asking that I be sworn in as Senator immediately, so that I can do the work that the people of the Virgin Islands elected me to do. The law is clearly on my side. I am confident that with God’s help and yours, our democracy will withstand this test and emerge even stronger.”