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HomeNewsLocal governmentSenate Considers Asking Washington for Locally Elected Attorney General

Senate Considers Asking Washington for Locally Elected Attorney General

St. Croix attorney Russell Pate argued Tuesday that electing the Virgin Islands attorney general, rather than having the position appointed by the governor, gave power to the people. (Screenshot from V.I. Legislature Facebook live stream)

Virgin Islands lawmakers heard pros and cons Tuesday of a plan to petition Washington to change the Revised Organic Act to allow election of the local attorney general, a position now filled and vacated at the governor’s pleasure. The Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety ultimately declined to forward the legislation out of committee, but the debate touched on many hot-button issues around elections, public integrity, and territorial autonomy.

Acting Attorney General Ian Clement said his office did not have an official position on whether the resolution was a good idea but suggested increasing residency requirements in the legislation as well as how long a candidate must have practiced law in the territory, ensuring they are intimately connected to the U.S. Virgin Islands. While 43 states elect their attorney general, Clement warned what works on the mainland might not work in the USVI.

Attorney Russell Pate, president-elect of the Virgin Islands Bar Association’s Board of Governors, liked the idea but recommended reducing residency and local practice minimums to entice highly qualified Virgin Islanders working abroad to seek office at home.

Chief Territorial Public Defender Julie S. Todman told the committee that she feared elections might introduce political pressure — including the need to fundraise for campaigns — into a system meant to bolster fairness not popularity.

Caroline Fawkes, the Elections System of the Virgin Islands’ supervisor of Elections, maintained her customary neutrality on such issues. Fawkes did, however, emphasize any proposed changes in elected offices needed to be in line with existing elections laws.

Previous attempts to move legislation allowing for local election of the attorney general, going back to at least 1998, have been scuttled by wording within the Organic Act, which is the de facto Virgin Islands constitution. Currently, the Virgin Islands governor chooses the attorney general and can remove the person at will.

The resolution considered Tuesday would ask the U.S. Congress to change the Organic Act allowing for the possibility of changing how the top law enforcement officer is chosen. Only then could local legislators pass a bill to change the law, including a provision that the attorney general only be removed for cause in an impeachment process.

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. has gone through several.

Sen. Ray Fonseca noted the rapid appointment and release of attorneys general in the past five years: Denise George-Counts headed the office from 2019 to 2023 when she was fired in the wake of her suit over the banking entanglements with Jeffery Epstein. Attorney-turned-judge Carol Thomas-Jacobs briefly held the position before being replaced by Ariel K. Smith, who resigned suddenly in March after less than 260 days on the job. Bryan nominated Clement for the job five days later.

Sen. Kenneth Gittens said the issue hinged on protecting the attorney general from the whims of a governor. Gittens said he planned to introduce legislation creating a committee to investigate ethics and conflicts of interest in government.

Sen. Marise James raised the specter of Epstein as well, expressing concern that a bad-actor’s money could influence what laws are enforced.

Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger, the resolution’s sponsor, bristled at the Epstein comment, saying many local elected officials accepted donations from the notorious sex offender before his public downfall and ultimate death in jail. She said the legislation had been drafted in 2021 and was in no way related to Epstein nor George-Counts’ firing.

Sen. Franklin Johnson said spending money often won elections. He and other senators wondered if low residency requirements could attract rich off-islanders perhaps seeking celebrity over service to the community.

Pate said the voter should be the ultimate decider and is smart enough to weed out any “carpetbagger” candidate.

“You have to trust the voters,” Pate said. “Do you trust the voter or not? If you’re making good money in the States, you’re not going to come down just to run the Virgin Islands Department of Justice, which is like a small city. You’re going to be someone who has a heart, who was born and raised here, who says ‘I want the opportunity to come home.’”

Pate ended the session by telling the Senate they could enact legislation to protect the attorney general position from capricious removal. A new law could make removing the top lawmaker dependent on legislative approval.

Todman agreed.

“It should not be a removal by will; it should be removal for cause,” she said.

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