Wednesday, June 14, 2017
The Third Circuit last week dismissed a case challenging an elected candidate's qualifications for the Virgin Islands legislature. The ruling means that the elected candidate will not be seated.
The case arose when Kevin Rodriguez was elected to serve in the Virgin Islands Legislature. After the election, but before the swearing-in, a rival candidate, Janelle Sarauw, challenged Rodriguez's qualifications to serve, based on Rodriguez's prior representation in a bankruptcy case that he lived in Tennessee. (The VI Revised Organic Act requires that a person serving in the VI legislature reside in the VI for at least three years preceding the date of his or her election.) Sarauw sued in the VI courts and sought an injunction compelling the Board of Elections to de-certify Rodriguez as a qualified candidate, thus preventing him from taking a seat in the 32nd Legislature. (The Board, an independently elected body outside the legislature and judiciary, has authority under the ROA to determine qualifications of candidates before swearing in.)
While that case was moving up and down the VI courts, the 32nd Legislature was sworn in (without Rodriguez, because the courts were still working out how to deal with his qualification). Rodriguez then removed the case to federal court (remember, this is all federal law, including the ROA, because of the VI's status in relation to the US), asking for an injunction directing the 32nd Legislature to seat him.
The Third Circuit tossed the case. The court ruled that the courts lacked authority to rule a candidate qualified after the swearing in, because the ROA says that the legislature shall have the sole power to determine the qualifications of its members. In other words, the issue was textually committed to a coordinate branch of government--a political question. (The court ruled that the ROA contains separation-of-powers principles, which form the basis of the political question doctrine.) The court noted that separation-of-powers and the ROA would not prohibit the courts from ruling on a candidate's qualifications before swearing in, when the Board has authority to make such a determination, because the separation of powers don't apply to the Board, "a popularly elected and independent entity" that's not a part of the legislative or judicial branches. But Rodriguez only removed his case after the swearing-in, so his case was always a political question.
The court also ruled that the portion of the case brought by Sarauw, the "removed case," was moot, because the legislature had already been sworn in.
Along the way, the governor ordered a special election, and Sarauw won.