A Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruling handed down Friday put the ongoing legal battle waged these past few months by senator-elect Kevin Rodriguez back where it started: in the hands of the V.I. Legislature.
The ruling does not overturn any of the legal decisions made in the case so far, but it does say that a previous ruling from the District Court makes moot any injunctions put in place to keep Rodriquez from taking a Senate seat. The ruling also says that now that the Legislature has been sworn in, only its members can determine whether Rodriguez can be seated or not.
“This case centers on the question of who should determine Rodriguez’s qualifications to serve in the 32nd Legislature of the Virgin Islands,” the ruling said. “Specifically at issue here is who should decide whether Rodriguez satisfied the qualification that he has been a ‘bona fide resident’ of the Virgin Islands for at least three years … preceding the date of his election.”
Rodriquez came in sixth in the November 2016 general 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.
While the Senate deferred to the courts, both Rodriquez’s and Sarauw’s suits were eventually dismissed, along with an appeal recently filed by Rodriquez that sought to stay the special election.
Meanwhile, a special election, in which Sarauw was selected by voters to fill Rodriquez’s vacant seat, was held, but the results were never certified by the St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections, whose members said they would not be able to put Sarauw in until Rodriquez was officially taken out, or de-certified. Rodriquez sought to stay the election by filing a suit in District Court, which was also denied, and Rodriquez countered with another appeal to the Third Circuit, which did not weigh in on the previous legal matters, but chose to stay focused on the roles of the Elections Board, the courts and the Legislature in the legal process.
According to Friday’s ruling, the Revised Organic Act maintains that the duty of the Elections Board is to determine the candidates’ qualifications. The courts may jump in if there is a challenge
“Between the certification of the election and the time the Legislature convenes, a court may review election challenges that may change the results of the election, which may occur, for example, if there has been a fraud,” according to the ruling. “After the legislature convenes, however, the power to determine a winning candidate’s eligibility to serve shifts to the Legislature.”
And, now that the legislature has convened, whether the court has the power to decide if an individual satisfies the qualifications to hold a seat in the Legislature is influenced by the court’s obligation to respect the separation of powers among the branches of government, the ruling added.
“As discussed above, the Revised Organic Act, as the V.I. constitution, contains a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of power to the Legislature to determine the qualifications of its members,” the ruling said. “This prevents courts from interfering with the V.I. Legislature’s determination of the qualifications of its members, including whether they meet the residency requirements…”
According to the ruling, under the “plain language” of the Revised Organic Act, once the 32nd Legislature convened, it alone had the authority determine whether Rodriguez had the qualifications necessary to be a member.
“In sum, before the 32nd Legislature convened, the Board of Elections had the authority to review the qualifications of prospective members of the Legislature and because it is not a part of the Legislature or any other branch of the V.I. government, issues of separation of powers did not preclude a court from a viewing in the Board of Elections decisions concerning a candidate’s qualifications,” the ruling said. “But now that the 32nd Legislature has convened, only that body can determine the qualifications of its members and separation of powers principles require a court to decline weighing in on these issues.”
While there was no word Friday from the Senate or Sarauw – who has also filed suit to have the courts weigh in on the Election Board’s decision not to certify the April special election results – Rodriquez issued a press release commending the Third Circuit for its ruling.
“The Court of Appeals confirmed what I’ve been saying all along: only the Legislature can decide whether I am qualified to be seated,” Rodriquez said in his statement. “This is exactly what I said in my letter to the Senate president on January 9. And, since the injunctions blocking me from taking the oath of office are gone, it is now up to the Legislature to seat me so that I can do the work that I was elected to do.”