Legal Battle Rages on Over Unfilled Seat in 32nd Legislature

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ST. THOMAS — Close to a month after a new session of the Legislature began, the membership remains fixed on 14. The man who is presumably the 15th elected lawmaker remains unseated, while legal matters surrounding his bid for the Senate play out in court.

Senator-elect Kevin Rodriquez is the subject of a federal lawsuit he brought against the 32nd Legislature the day after they formally convened on Jan. 9. Rodriquez was barred from taking the oath of office by the VI Supreme Court. The high court weighed Jan., on the eve of the public ceremony inducting lawmakers into the new session.

In his federal lawsuit, the senator-elect is asking the District Court to order the Legislature to seat him. Rodriquez cited a portion of the Virgin Islands Code that says once lawmakers are in session, they and only they can determine the fate of his members.

Senate President Myron Jackson, who is also named as a party to the lawsuit, recently said he will wait for the court to conclude its business.

On Jan. 24, District Court Judge Curtis Gomez agreed to remand the case from the VI Superior Court system — in which the Supreme Court is the appellate — to the federal court. At the same time Gomez accepted a motion to join the case from Rodriquez’s political rival, Janelle Sarauw.

Sarauw, the eighth place finisher in a seven seat race for the Legislature from the St. Thomas-St. John district, sued elections officials and Rodriquez over certification of the election results. She’s accusing Rodriquez of falsely stating he fulfilled a three-year residency requirement needed by Senate candidates.

Sarauw also produced a copy of a 2016 bankruptcy filing from Tennessee where Rodriquez checked off a box saying he lived there and nowhere else in 2013 and 2014.

In public statements issues since the legal wrangling began in December, the senator-elect has accused Sarauw of being a sore loser.

Some sitting members of the 32nd, including Alicia “Chucky” Hansen and Tregenza Roach, have called on the body to perform its mandated function and determine Rodriquez’s status. Others who are familiar with the case say the judge has two likely options. He could either declare it an internal matter of the first branch of government or he could agree to rule on the merits. 

Sources close to the case have also expressed concern about a different provision of law, which would allow the governor to declare a special election if a seat in the Senate remains vacant for 30 days.

That day could arrive as soon as next week.

Seats in the VI Legislature are divided into districts — seven on St. Croix, seven in the district of St. Thomas-St. John, with one at large seat, traditionally filled by a St. John resident.

The unfilled seat became apparent to thousands of Virgin Islands watching and listening to Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s annual State of the Territory on Jan. 30. When the formalities began with a roll call of lawmakers, the count added up to 14.