Judge considers Coffelt's request to stop Elections from ending her bid for governor


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ST. CROIX - U.S. District Judge Wilma Lewis on Tuesday took under advisement a request for a temporary restraining order 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.

After hearing oral arguments and probing the positions of attorneys for both sides in the case for about three hours Tuesday afternoon, Lewis announced that she would have to consider the matter further and anticipated issuing her decision on the TRO request "promptly."

Lewis' decision in the case itself - which raises constitutional issues as well as statutory ones - 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.

The lawsuit was filed Friday on behalf of Coffelt; Canegata, state chair of the Republican party, who is running for that post again in the primary, but also wants to run in the general election as an independent candidate for lieutenant governor on the ticket with Coffelt; and Ronald Charles, a voter.

Last week, Elections Supervisor Caroline Fawkes gave Coffelt a notice of defect because Canegata, her running mate, is a registered Republican.

The Elections System's position is that a governor and lieutenant governor running on the same ticket must be of the same political party. According to the lawsuit, in order for Coffelt to correct the notice of defect, either Canegata would have to resign as a member of the Republican party or Coffelt would have to choose another running mate.

The candidates disagree. Their position is that what they are trying to do is permissible under V.I. Code - and that Fawke's decision has constitutional implications for them and for the territory's voters.

Coffelt had originally announced Warren Mosler as her running mate, but later switched to Canegata and filed new nomination papers by the deadline.

Although the attorney for the candidates, Andrew Simpson, raised First Amendment issues as he started his presentation Tuesday, by the end of the day, he said he also thought the case could proceed based on the provisions in V.I. Code.

The attorney for the Elections System, V.I. Assistant Attorney General Carol Thomas-Jacobs, said she too thought the case could proceed based on provisions in V.I. Code.

At the center of the case is the interpretation of two sections of V.I. Code about 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 candidates nominated by political parties, and a different subchapter that deals with the nomination of independent candidates.

According to arguments presented Tuesday, the position of the Elections System is that the two pathways 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.

Therefore, Thomas-Jacobs contended that a registered Republican cannot run as a no-party candidate - that it would create "chaos" and voter confusion.

However, the position of the two candidates is that the two pathways are not mutually exclusive, provided that certain conditions are met.

Simpson said the law was intended to prevent "sore losers" - those who lose the party primary - from continuing on in a race as a no-party candidate.

But he contended that there is nothing in the law to prevent Canegata - who is not running for the lieutenant governor post in the primary - from running for lieutenant governor as an independent candidate in the General Election, while also retaining his political affiliation.

Lewis suggested that her decision in the matter would be based on the plain language in the law.

"The first thing the court has to do is look at what does the language say," she said.

She said that when she issues her decision about the TRO, she will also issue a scheduling order for briefing and oral arguments on the case.

The plaintiffs are seeking a TRO, preliminary injunction, permanent injunction and declaratory relief, 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.

- Contact reporter Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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