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HomeNewsLocal newsJudge Sets Trial Date in Payne's Suit Against 34th Legislature

Judge Sets Trial Date in Payne’s Suit Against 34th Legislature

Superior Court Senior Sitting Judge Renee Gumbs Carty has set a March 14 bench trial date for former Sen. Steven Payne Sr.’s lawsuit against the 34th Legislature, which voted to expel him over sexual harassment allegations in July 2022.

Sen. Steven Payne Sr. during a legislative hearing in March 2022. (Photo courtesy V.I. Legislature)

In her order Friday setting the trial date, Gumbs Carty denied two pending motions to dismiss the suit that were filed in August and October 2022, and said that she would issue a memorandum opinion and order shortly.

A bench trial is conducted by the judge and does not involve a jury.

At issue is whether the 34th Legislature and then Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory violated the body’s own rules when they voted 14-1 to expel Payne on July 20, 2022. Payne was the lone nay vote and has denied any wrongdoing. The Democratic Party subsequently selected Angel Bolques Jr. to finish Payne’s term, and he won election that fall to the St. John senator-at-large seat.

Payne’s lawsuit, filed on July 28, 2022, contends that lawmakers may discipline, but not expel, a member. In doing so, they disenfranchised the voters who elected him to serve in the 34th Legislature, his attorney Treston Moore has said.

Payne is joined in the complaint by resident Noellise Powell, who alleges that she was unduly deprived of the services provided by the candidate she voted for.

The defense has argued that even if the 34th Legislature broke its own rules, it would be wrong for the court to intervene because to do so would violate the separation of powers doctrine, a constitutional law that limits any branch of government from exercising the core functions of another.

It has also argued in a Motion to Take Judicial Notice filed Nov. 13 that the Revised Organic Act, which functions as the territory’s constitution, broadly implies that the Legislature has the authority to expel senators, if not explicitly stating such.

Their argument is based on the fact that the Revised Organic Act allows the V.I. Supreme Court to expel judges — a law that was passed by the Legislature.

“The Supreme Court — very obviously — believed that the Legislature had such authority under the broad grant of powers given it by section 8(a) of the ROA. Such authority was duly delegated to the Supreme Court by the Legislature in the context of removal of judges by Title 4 V.I. Code sections 27 and 28, and was kept by the Legislature for itself in the context of the expulsion of senators,” the motion states.

The defense also has argued that the lawsuit is now moot, since the 34th Legislature no longer exists, having now been replaced by the 35th, and Frett-Gregory is no longer the Senate president.

Gumbs Carty disagreed with that assessment, noting in a previous ruling that the issue at hand is not moot if it has the chance of occurring again, and that “this matter is still ripe for consideration.”

At the time of his expulsion on July 20, 2022, Payne faced allegations of sexual harassment by three women, including an employee of the Legislature who filed a sexual harassment complaint against the senator stemming from a trip to St. Croix on official Senate business in February 2022.

The allegations against Payne pushed both Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. and Frett-Gregory to call for investigations, with Frett-Gregory convening a Committee on Ethics within the V.I. Legislature that eventually voted for Payne’s expulsion as a senator.

Payne is seeking unspecified damages, back pay as well as costs, expenses, and attorney fees.

Separately, Payne is facing sexual battery charges in Florida after he was arrested on warrant out of Duval County on Sept. 8 by Orlando Police over alleged misconduct that occurred between late 2018 and early 2019 involving a minor girl. He is free on $250,000 bail in that case.

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