It seems Kevin Rodriquez will not be seated in the V.I. Legislature, despite winning enough votes, because he claimed Tennessee residency in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, disallowing him to claim he meets the V.I. residency requirement for senatorial office. To fill the seat, Gov. Kenneth Mapp has called a special election, a move opposed by the V.I. Democratic Party but mentioned as a valid possibility in a federal court ruling dismissing Rodriquez’s suit seeking to have the Legislature seat him.
U.S. District Court Judge Curtis Gomez has dismissed both Rodriquez’s suit seeking to have the Legislature determine his eligibility and the suit filed by electoral rival Janelle Sarauw seeking to force the St. Thomas/St. John Board of Elections to decertify the election and disqualify Rodriquez.
The ruling leaves in place a V.I. Supreme Court opinion holding Rodriquez does not meet the V.I. residency requirement and paves the way for a special election.
Rodriquez came in sixth in November’s election to fill seven St. Thomas/St.John legislative seats and the St. Thomas/St. John Board of Elections certified his candidacy and the final vote.
But in December, the eighth-place candidate, Janelle Sarauw, joined by a campaign worker, sued in V.I. Superior Court to stop Rodriquez from being seated, arguing that Rodriquez had asserted in court documents filed in 2016 that he was a bona fide resident of Tennessee and therefore could not meet the three-year V.I. residency requirement set by V.I. law.
The V.I. Supreme Court determined that in his bankruptcy petition, Rodriquez swore under penalty of perjury that he lived in Tennessee and had not lived in another state anytime during the preceding three years. It applied the doctrine of “judicial estoppel,” saying that Rodriquez’s claim under oath in one court prevented him from claiming the opposite in another court.
Rodriquez filed to have the case moved to federal court. He argued that the Revised Organic Act, the federal law that acts as a constitution for the territory, gives the Legislature final authority over who is qualified to sit. Rodriquez also sued the Legislature, requesting it seat him.
Sarauw, on the other hand, argued the St. Thomas/St. John Board of Election erred and asked the court to direct the board to decertify Rodriquez as a candidate.
Senate President Myron Jackson, on behalf of the V.I. Legislature, filed a motion with the court asking it to dismiss Rodriquez’s complaint. Part of the Legislature’s argument was that, although the Legislature had the power to determine the qualifications of its members, it had put the residency requirement into the law and could not violate the law. Now that the V.I. Supreme Court has ruled that Rodriquez is legally barred from claiming residency in the Virgin Islands, if the Legislature were to seat Rodriquez, it would interfere with the Supreme Court’s lawful authority and invite more litigation.
The decision does not mean Sarauw will be seated simply because she is next in line in terms of vote count. Gomez’s ruling denies Sarauw’s motion to compel the Board of Elections to decertify the results of the election, saying the board’s role is completed and the request is moot, meaning it is no longer meaningful or relevant.
In a memorandum outlining its position, the Legislature asserted that if the court “continues the vacancy that now exists in the 32nd Legislature, the appropriate officials of the territory shall initiate or continue in any efforts to hold a special election” pursuant to V.I. law.
Gomez’s order cites the V.I. law,which says if “a vacancy occurs in the office of a member of the Legislature, the governor shall call a special election . . . within 30 days following the day on which the vacancy occurs.” He goes on to say it “is entirely within the province of the executive to do so if he chooses.”
Gomez also writes that inconsistencies in recent changes to V.I. law aimed at consolidating the territory’s boards into a single board mean “there may be some doubt as to the current survival of any entity that would hold an election.” But he concludes that changing the law “involves policy considerations that are appropriately left to the first branch of government,” which is the Legislature. (Memorandum Rodriguez]
After the ruling came out Tuesday, Mapp signed a proclamation calling for a special election to fill the seat.
“Due consideration must be given to the rights and privileges of the citizens of the Virgin Islands … to be afforded full and equal representation in the Legislature,” Mapp said in a statement from Government House.
The V.I. Democratic Party Executive Committee responded by calling on the Legislature to “immediately swear in Kevin Rodriguez.”
V.I. Democratic Party State Chair Donna Christensen said in a statement, “To delay action would be to risk ceding the authority of the Legislative Branch to that of the Executive Branch, which is completely unacceptable. The people of the Virgin Islands deserve and need to have a fully constituted Legislature, especially at this time of crisis.”
Christensen said in a statement, “The over 4,000 voters who placed their confidence in Senator-elect Rodriquez deserve to have their votes honored and the Democratic Party, which nominated him as their choice to serve, insist on immediate remedy.” Christensen concluded that the Democratic Party views a vacancy has not yet been established and Mapp’s action to be premature.