Coffelt seeks injunction to stay on V.I. ballot
Published: June 30, 2014
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ST. CROIX - A federal judge on Friday took under advisement a request for a permanent injunction to prevent the V.I. Elections supervisor from disqualifying a gubernatorial candidate and her running mate because one candidate is no-party and the other is Republican.
District Judge Wilma Lewis at Friday's hearing spent hours probing, questioning attorneys for both sides on their positions, playing devil's advocate and delving into the nuances of words contained in V.I. Code.
Lewis' decision in the case will determine whether Soraya Diase Coffelt, a no-party candidate for governor, can run with Republican John Canegata as her running mate for lieutenant governor on the same ticket in this year's General Election.
In late May, Elections Supervisor Caroline Fawkes gave Coffelt a notice of defect because Canegata is a registered Republican.
The lawsuit was filed May 30 on behalf of Coffelt; Canegata, state chairman of the Republican party, who is running for that post again in the primary and also wants to run in the General Election as an independent candidate for lieutenant governor; and Ronald Charles, a voter.
Earlier this month, Lewis granted a temporary restraining order in the matter and now is considering whether to grant the permanent injunction.
At the heart of the case is the interpretation of two sections of V.I. Code about the nomination of candidates.
In Title 18, which is devoted to elections, two of the subchapters are about nominations - one dealing with nominations at primaries, which pertains to candidates nominated by political parties, and a different subchapter that deals with the nomination of independent candidates.
The position of the Elections System is that the two paths to nomination are mutually exclusive and that the law requires a candidate for office who is a registered member of a political party to go through the primary process, where party members choose their candidates. The Elections Systems contends that a registered Republican cannot run as a no-party candidate.
However, the position of the two candidates is that the two paths are not mutually exclusive, provided that certain conditions are met, including that those who lose the party primary cannot continue on in the race as no-party candidates.
The candidates' attorney, Andrew Simpson, contends nothing is in the law to prevent Canegata from running for lieutenant governor as a no-party candidate in the General Election.
In a brief supporting the candidates' position, Simpson argues that V.I. Code does not prohibit members of political parties from running as independent or "no party" candidates. He contends that Coffelt and Canegata have complied with the nomination requirements in the V.I. Code and no statutory basis exists to conclude that their nomination papers are defective.
Simpson also argued that even if the section of V.I. Code dealing with how independent candidates file for nomination prohibited members of political parties from running for office as independent or "no party" candidates, that requirement would comprise a "political test" for running for office and would therefore run afoul of a provision in the Revised Organic Act.
Assistant Attorney General Carole Thomas-Jacobs, representing the Elections System, argued in her brief that Canegata cannot run as an independent no-party candidate in the General Election when he is in fact registered as a Republican.
"As a member of the Republican party running for public office, Canegata must be nominated by party electors and elected at a primary," she wrote. She argued that a person who is registered as a Democrat or Republican who is seeking office "cannot surreptitiously change his party affiliation by declaring himself as running as an independent" without actually going through the process to cancel or change his party enrollment.
Thomas-Jacobs contended that allowing a registered party member to run as an independent would circumvent the primary process altogether.
However, discussion at the hearing suggested that there are ambiguities in V.I. Code, leaving open the possibility that the interpretations of both sides may have some validity. There was much discussion during the hearing centered on trying to divine legislative intent in the applicable statutes.
After a June 3 hearing, Lewis on June 6 granted the temporary restraining order. On June 18, she extended the order for 14 days, through July 4.
The judge queried the parties on Friday about their thoughts about another extension.
Simpson indicated that the pending court case is affecting his clients' ability to fundraise and said they hope for a ruling quickly, although he did not oppose an extension, if necessary.
Thomas-Jacobs, noting her client was off-island, said she could not say until she talked to Fawkes on Monday.
The plaintiffs are asking the judge to stop Fawkes from disqualifying the candidates, to clarify the law as it relates to running mates from different parties and to rule that the two candidates have met the requirements for placement on the ballot.
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