ST. THOMAS — The conflict over how the territory’s elections can be administered is headed to a quick trial.
At a status hearing Thursday morning, V.I. Superior Court Judge Denise Francois ordered an evidentiary hearing to be combined with a trial on the merits of the case. Francois set aside two days — Monday and Tuesday — to address a lawsuit between the territorial government and the Elections board.
The V.I. government has sued the members of the district boards of Elections for failing to comply with a law dissolving both district boards of Elections and creating a single board of Elections comprising members of the district boards. The law, Act 7982, passed the Legislature on July 7, 2017.
Board members argue that the Legislature doesn’t have the power to change an elected office midterm. They argue that because they were elected to four-year terms, they have a right to serve a four-year term that the Legislature cannot take away, what is known as a “property right.”
At a status conference Thursday morning in Superior Court, Francois limited the hearing specifically to scheduling matters and said she would have to base the final decision on testimony and evidence.
“I can’t just go on what I read in the newspapers,” she said, at one point.
Assistant Attorney General Ariel Smith said she intends to bring one witness from the St. Croix District and one witness from the St. Thomas-St. John District.
Attorney Julita De Leon — who was selected by the joint boards to file a lawsuit against the government over Act 7982 prior to the 2017 hurricanes — said she intends to bring three witnesses.
“I’m not sure how long that will take,” she told Francois.
Officials also are seeking official transcripts from the legislative hearings regarding the passage of the law, though Smith said legislative officials have been vague about delivery.
“I’m getting a little hemming and hawing,” she said.
That response is typical, Francois said.
“I, in the past, have had zero luck getting transcripts, even when it’s not expedited,” she said of the Legislature.
The hearing came as Francois denied a motion filed by the government seeking a temporary restraining order preventing the elected members of the boards of Elections from meeting as separate boards. The government has filed a motion for reconsideration, based on the April 13 meeting of the joint boards of Elections.
Joint Elections board Chairwoman Barbara Jackson-McIntosh was excluded from the executive session portion of the April 13 meeting, and she resigned as chairwoman immediately after. Board members ultimately voted to table all remaining business pending a ruling by the courts under the leadership of Vice-Chairwoman Carla Joseph.
The board’s behavior is undermining its mission, Smith wrote.
“The continued refusal and failure of the defendants to form a single Board and elect a Chair and Vice Chair of the single Board as mandated by Act No. 7982 needs to be immediately addressed and resolved in light of the fast approaching 2018 election,” she wrote. “The continued recalcitrant conduct of the Defendants undermines the ‘integrity, stability and efficiencies of the operations of the Virgin Islands Election System and process. The Defendants’ repeated violation of Virgin Islands law only leads to uncertainty, creates confusion, and undermines the public’s confidence in the Election System.”
Smith asked about a briefing schedule — a deadline by which lawyers have to make their arguments to the judge — and Francois was reserved.
“What do you mean a briefing schedule?” she responded. “We’re having a trial on Monday.”
The trial begins at 10:30 a.m. in the Superior Court on St. Thomas.