One day after a Superior Court judge ruled against elected officials at the Board of Elections, dissident members set out to mount a challenge at the Virgin Islands Supreme Court.
The ruling by Superior Court Judge Denise Francois was in response to legal action taken by the Justice Department.
Francois declared 13 members of the elections boards from the districts of St. Croix and St. Thomas-St. John violated two recent laws designed to restructure the body. The judge also invalidated any actions taken by the boards — separately as district boards or together as a joint elections board — since Aug. 1, 2017.
That was the day the laws set for the body to convert into a single territorial board.
Carla Joseph, the current chairwoman of the joint board, hailed Francois’ decision Friday. Joseph assumed the chairmanship when Barbara Jackson-McIntosh stepped down, but Joseph said she was about to step aside herself.
Four other members, according to the joint board secretary, met in separate phone calls and expressed a wish to take their fight to the next level. St. Croix board member and attorney Lisa Harris-Moorehead said Friday night she was preparing an expedited motion for appeal.
“The motion will be filed this weekend,” she said.
In Francois’ two-page ruling she sided with the Justice Department, represented in court by Assistant Attorney General Ariel Smith. The first order and decree said board members “failed to convene as a single Board of Elections as required in Act. No 7892, as amended by Act No 7982.”
In the second order and decree, the judge said defendants held illegal meetings of the district boards after Aug. 1.
The third order and decree invalidated “all decisions made by the St. Thomas and St. John District Board and the St. Croix (sic) District Board of Elections.”
The fourth declared that defendants failed to convene a single Board of Elections by Aug. 1 as required by law.
In her fifth order in Thursday’s judgement, Francois directed defendants Lilliana Belardo de O’Neal, Glenn Webster, Adelbert “Bert” Bryan, Raymond J. Williams, Ephiphane Joseph, Lisa Harris-Moorhead, Arturo Watlington, Jr, Lydia Hendricks, Carla Joseph, Maurice A. Donovan, Jr., Alecia Wells, Diane J. Magras-Urena and Ivy K. Moses to “convene forthwith” as a single Board of Elections, and to elect a chairperson and vice-chairperson.
The court’s sixth order and decree enjoined and prohibited members of the Board of Elections in the two districts from conducting further district board or joint board meetings. To do so, Francois said, would violate Title 18 of the Virgin Islands Code, Section 41 as amended by Acts 7892 and 7982.
In the seventh section, Francois declared the single Elections Board “the only policy-making body authorized to establish procedures for elections within the Virgin Islands.”
McIntosh on Friday called the judgement fitting and proper. She was the only board member not named in the Justice Department’s lawsuit. She stepped down from the chairmanship April 13 at a meeting where members refused to hold elections for new officers.
“A single board can better address uniformity on logistics. There’s a whole lot of single board issues we have to address,” she said.
Joseph said she heard Francois had ruled but had not read the ruling yet. Joseph became the new board chairwoman when McIntosh stepped aside, but on Friday Joseph said she was also preparing an exit, in order to run for a seat in the 33rd Legislature.
“I haven’t read the ruling. I don’t know what the decision of the membership is going to be. The question is how are they going to meet and when are they going to meet?” she said.
In another personnel change since April 13, St. Croix District Board Chairwoman Belardo de O’Neal turned in her resignation to Elections Supervisor Caroline Fawkes, also in order to run for a senate seat.
That leaves Watlington, secretary of the joint board and chairman of the St. Thomas-St. John district board, to lead once Joseph turns in her resignation.
Speaking over the phone Friday, Watlington said the departure of McIntosh and Joseph would leave him in the leadership position, but of what?
If the court forbids the joint board to ever meet again, he said, how would the formalities leading to creation of a single board occur?
Watlington also said that Francois’ ruling did nothing to address the defendant’s arguments, chief among them that district elections boards and the joint elections board were established by the Revised Organic Act.
Created by Congress in 1936 and revised in 1954, the ROA acts as the territory’s constitution and cannot be abridged or amended without Congressional approval.
Like Joseph, Watlington said he had not read the Thursday ruling yet, but via phone conversations with Bryan, Harris-Moorhead, and Wells, there was a consensus on mounting an appeal.