The issue arises in the wake of confusion and legal dispute over the 2016 senatorial election and a subsequent special election. The St. Thomas/St. John Board of Elections certified candidate Kevin Rodriquez as one of the seven winners for that district, based upon his vote total. But there was a court dispute over whether Rodriquez was eligible as he had filed court papers in another state claiming residency there shortly prior to the election. The V.I. Supreme Court ruled Rodriquez was estopped – legally prevented from claiming to be a lawful V.I. resident because of his filing sworn documents in another district.
There was a special election earlier this month and Janelle Sarauw won. But the St. Thomas/ St. John board has so far declined to certify the results out of confusion over whether they need to decertify Rodriquez first or if the Legislature, which is given authority to determine who is qualified to be a candidate, needs to act.
In a statement, Sens. Tregenza Roach, Janette Millin Young and Dwayne DeGraff said that they continue to be concerned regarding the inequality of representation in their district due to the empty senate seat. The senators said that challenges to the results of both the general and special elections may cause this matter to be drawn out indefinitely.
As members of the Senate’s Minority Coalition, the senators had earlier appealed to the body to address the matter prior to the special election held in April. Unfortunately, their pleas fell on deaf ears, despite the fact that they were supported in their position by the Legislature’s Legal Counsel.
“I really believe that the Legislature missed an opportunity to provide closure in this matter early on. The Legal Counsel’s opinion made it clear that we were required to act, and as provided in the Organic Act, we would have had the opportunity to make the final decision on whether or not Senator-Elect Kevin Rodriquez would be seated as a member of the body,” Roach said in the statement.
He added that every court has suggested that the Legislature had the authority to intervene and each written opinion references the body’s failure to act.
The Supreme Court ruling on its face suggests that Rodriquez cannot legally claim to have been a V.I. resident for the past three years, as the law requires.
When the Senate chose not to act previously, other senators suggested if the Legislature interpreted its authority so as to seat a candidate that fell outside of the legal requirements for candidacy, there would be more lawsuits, delay and chaos.
Senator Millin Young said that timely resolution to this matter is critical because it affects the body’s ability to function consistent with its responsibilities set out in the Revised Organic Act, the federal legislation that acts as the territory’s constitution until such a time as the territory approves its own.
“We have requested the Legal Counsel’s input because we want to be assured that we have solid legal advice going forward,” Millin Young said. “But what we cannot, and should not do, is to sit around waiting for someone else to resolve this issue. Leaders must lead.”
The legal counsel’s input could guide senators in their decision but does not have the power of law or a court ruling. It is informed legal advice.