V.I. Supreme Court rules Sen. Hansen ineligible to seek re-election in Nov.
Published: August 29, 2014
Font size: [A] [A] [A]
ST. CROIX - The V.I. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Sen. Alicia Hansen is prohibited from running for office in the General Election based on the V.I. Code's "moral turpitude" clause.
The panel of justices - Maria Cabret, Ive Swan and Chief Justice Rhys Hodge - heard oral arguments Tuesday in the case in which Adelbert Bryan has appealed a V.I. Superior Court order that dismissed a challenge to Hansen's eligibility to run for office in the Nov. 4 election.
St. Croix attorney Emile Henderson III, who represented Bryan in the case, argued that Superior Court Judge Douglas Brady committed multiple errors when he dismissed the suit filed by Bryan against Hansen and V.I. Elections Supervisor Caroline Fawkes contesting Hansen's eligibility. Bryan claimed Hansen was ineligible to seek another term as a St. Croix District senator because of a previous conviction on a crime involving moral turpitude for failure to file income taxes.
The justices took just one full day before issuing the opinion determining that they have jurisdiction over the matter. They also ruled that because fraud is "inextricably woven into the term willfully" as used in the section of the law that refers to the definition of a crime involving moral turpitude, they have concluded that Hansen was convicted of "crimes involving moral turpitude."
In the 35-page published opinion issued Thursday afternoon, the justices said rather than relying solely on the Black's Law Dictionary and similar modern authorities, the rules of statutory construction compelled them to determine whether the phrase "crimes involving moral turpitude" was used in any federal statute prior to adoption of the Revised Organic Act, and, if so, to find how the phrase was defined.
They concluded that Congress intended the phrase "crime of moral turpitude" to encompass all crimes "in which fraud is an ingredient."
They said looking at Hansen's convictions, it is clear that is the case.
It was unclear Thursday night how the Supreme Court ruling will affect Hansen's current status as a member of the 30th Legislature, as neither Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone, Senate Vice President Sammuel Sanes nor Senate Majority Leader Donald Cole returned calls to The Daily News by press time.
In its ruling, the high court reversed V.I. Superior Court Judge Douglas Brady's July 30 order, and directed the lower court to, on remand, grant Bryan's petition and set aside Fawkes' decision to place Hansen on the General Election ballot as a candidate for membership to the 31st Legislature.
The justices said according to the local code, if the court finds that the nomination petition or paper is defective or was not filed by persons entitled to file it, it shall be set aside, and they have concluded that based on their interpretations, Hansen is not entitled to run for office.
"Pursuant to binding United States Supreme Court precedent, Hansen's conviction for willful failure to file tax returns is a 'crime involving moral turpitude' that renders her ineligible to serve in the 31st Legislature," the opinion read. "Thus, we reverse the Superior Court's July 30, 2014, order, and direct the Superior Court to grant Bryan's petition and remove Hansen from the General Election ballot.
At the hearing of oral arguments in the case on Tuesday, the courtroom at the District Court was filled to capacity, with more than 70 people sitting elbow-to-elbow in the court benches, showing the wide public interest in the matter.
The justices listened closely to the arguments and questioned the attorneys - Henderson for Bryan, Lee Rohn for Hansen and Assistant Attorney General Kimberly Salisbury for Fawkes - on the factors that led them to their positions on the matter.
According to briefs filed by Henderson earlier this month, the Superior Court committed an error when it failed to conduct a statutory construction analysis in interpreting the term "moral turpitude" and failed to conduct a proper analysis in determining the term "willfully" as used in the law.
Henderson claims the court's action tainted its finding that Fawkes properly certified Hansen to be eligible to be nominated to the 2014 General Election ballot. The court compounded that error by failing to comply with its statutory mandate according to the law, he argued.
He said the court also erred in validating Fawkes' decision that Hansen is qualified to be on the ballot.
Rohn argued that the matter rightfully was dismissed by the lower court because, based on the Revised Organic Act of 1954, the qualifications of the members of the Legislature are left to be determined by that body. Under the separation of powers, only the Legislature has the authority to define a crime involving moral turpitude, and they have not done so resulting in action by omission, Rohn said.
In its ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that it and the Superior Court "unquestionably possess jurisdiction to adjudicate Bryan's challenge to Hansen's eligibility to serve in the 31st Legislature."
The justices were limited in the amount of time they had between the oral argument and their issuance of their order because Fawkes has said that to meet deadlines set by federal mandates, the ballots for the Nov. 4 election must be ordered and sent away for printing by the end of the month, which is this weekend.
On Thursday afternoon, Rohn said she and Hansen are appalled by the decision, which deprives the citizens of St. Croix of the representation of their most popular, highest vote-getting senator, who has served the community for more than 20 years.
"The persons most harmed by this decision are the thousands of persons who vote for Alicia 'Chucky' Hansen each election who she represents and protects," Rohn said. "Many of these persons are the poor and downtrodden who will now have no voice and no protector."
Rohn said the Supreme Court ruling primarily relies on a 1958 court definition of moral turpitude that is misplaced because times have changed and perspectives on moral conduct have evolved.
She said she will file a petition for judicial review with the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the decision because they feel the V.I. Supreme Court has erred by failing to exercise judicial restraint in the matter.
"The Revised Organic Act is to be the 'sole judge' of the elections and qualifications of its members," Rohn said, adding that the V.I. Supreme Court interjected itself into the elections of the members of the Legislature and has usurped the power of the Legislature granted by the Revised Organic Act.
Rohn called on Gov. John deJongh Jr. to immediately pardon Hansen and allow the people of the Virgin Islands to have the representative they have chosen.
On Thursday evening, Government House spokesman Jean Greaux Jr. said as of that time neither Rohn nor Hansen had contacted the governor to make a request for a pardon, and he did not know what the governor's position would be if a request is made.
"As of right now, I know the governor has not heard from either of them, and if he is contacted, I imagine we will need to have some discussion to figure out what the next step would be," Greaux said.
Bryan told The Daily News that he had heard that the opinion had been rendered and got a general idea of what the court's decision was, but he had not seen or read it for himself.
However, he said that the justices' ruling in his favor was not a win for him, but that Henderson's aggressive attitude and ability to reason his points to the three justices allowed the community to prevail.
"His performance was outstanding in comparison to all of those who failed to perform the duties all this time," Bryan said. "Look at those in Department of Justice, Board of Election, Election System, and even the senators who failed to act. They too should be charged for their lack of backbone to do something that they knew about."
Bryan said his persistence in seeing the issue through to the highest court was nothing that was personal against Hansen, but it was something that he had to do as part of his job as the chairman of the district board of elections.
"So many of them thumb up their nose and turn their backs when this issue first surfaced, and even now, nobody stand with me on this, but if I am to be victimized for doing my job, so be it in order for rights and justice to prevail," he said.
Henderson described the opinion as the advent of a new day for all Virgin Islanders.
"This is not about me or Bert Bryan or any personal vendetta. It was about ensuring that the law is followed," he said. "There are no exceptions. Lawmakers should not be lawbreakers."
Thursday night, Fawkes said she, too, was shocked at the ruling, but still stands by the decision she made deeming Hansen eligible based on the information she had when she made her determination.
"I would agree that the legal system is the best to put in place to define moral turpitude, not me as the supervisor," she said. "The title is ambiguous and outdated. It needs to be updated and it's up to the Legislature to write the laws so we can follow them."
Fawkes said she is not disheartened by the opinion, because court battles are a part of the job, and while she expects the system to prevail in some instances, some losses also are expected.
- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.