Judge Tosses Democratic Party Lawsuit to Seat Kevin Rodriquez

Kevin Rodriquez testifies before the Senate during the June session that ended with lawmakers denying him a seat. (V.I. Legislature photo by Barry Leerdam)
Kevin Rodriquez testifies before the Senate during the June session that ended with lawmakers denying him a seat. (V.I. Legislature photo by Barry Leerdam)

Three months after someone else was set in his place, U.S. District Court dismissed Thursday the V.I. Democratic Party’s lawsuit trying to overturn the process that led to Kevin Rodriquez’s disqualification as a candidate, rejecting each of the claims in turn.

The Democratic Party decried the decision in a statement Thursday evening.

The St. Thomas/St. John Board of Elections certified Kevin Rodriquez (D-STT) as a candidate and, after the November 2016 general election, as a winner, after Rodriquez came in sixth to fill the seven St. Thomas-St. John legislative seats.

But candidate, Janelle Sarauw (I-STT) sued 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.

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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.

Later, a federal court dismissed two suits over the election and said the governor could call a special election. Gov. Kenneth Mapp did so and Janelle Sarauw won that election in April.

A federal appellate court then ruled that the V.I. Legislature was the body that had to decide whether or not Rodriquez or Sarauw should be seated. On June 28, the Legislature voted not to admit Rodriquez, with a number of senators citing the Revised Organic Act’s three-year residency requirement. The Revised Organic Act is the federal law that acts as a constitution for the territory.

For example, Senate Majority Leader Neville James (D-STX) said, the documents bearing Rodriquez’s Tennessee address could not be overlooked, especially since they were filed in court in another jurisdiction.

“In effect he disqualified himself from being a bona fide resident in the Virgin Islands. He did it,” James said in June.

“I know that a lot of people are making this a case of ‘Rodriquez vs. the Legislature of the Virgin Islands.’ But it’s not. It’s ‘Rodriquez vs. Rodriquez under oath,” James said.

On July 3, the Democratic Party of the Virgin Islands and three individuals – Luis “Tito” Morales, Glen Smith and Edgar Phillips – filed a new suit in U.S. District Court on St. Thomas. Their suit claimed the Legislature violated Rodriquez’ due process by not establishing special rules instead of its general rules for its hearing on Rodriquez’ eligibility to serve. They also claimed the Legislature improperly considered Rodriquez’ bankruptcy. And they claimed the Legislature’s decision did not cite the Revised Organic Act’s qualifications for candidacy.

The court rejected the request for a temporary restraining order, saying, among other things, that there was not a likelihood of the suit succeeding. The court held a hearing both on the TRO and the full case on July 19.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Gomez rejected each of the claims and dismissed the suit. His opinion asserts the Legislature has authority to determine its own procedures and has authority to determine Rodriquez’s qualifications to be a candidate.

“In declining to seat Rodriquez, the 32nd Legislature considered Rodriquez’s petition for bankruptcy. The plaintiffs have offered no evidence, however, that the 32nd Legislature denied employment to Rodriquez ‘solely because’ of his bankruptcy petition. … Rather, the petition was permissibly considered as evidence of Rodriquez’s residency,” Gomez wrote.

Gomez’s opinion cites multiple quotes from senators during its hearing on Rodriquez saying the issue at hand was Rodriquez’s residency.

He concluded “the Court is satisfied that Rodriquez was excluded for failing to satisfy the residency requirement.”

V.I. Democratic Party State Chair Donna Christensen issued a statement on behalf of the party Thursday decrying the decision and reiterating the same claims as those made in the lawsuit.

“We are reviewing the document with our attorneys, but continue to hold that by not adhering to what is prescribed by the Revised Organic Act as the qualifications for a Member (sic) of the Virgin Islands Legislature, the Legislature violated the Revised Organic Act and denied due process to Kevin Rodriguez,” Christensen wrote.

“The judgement. we feel, allows a precedent to stand which can be utilized to deny other elected persons their seat based on any real or perceived issue that falls outside of what is prescribed by law. This further undermines an election process that is already under question,” she concluded.

The residency requirement senators cited as the reason for disqualifying Rodriquez is among those prescribed by law.

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