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Litigants react to illegal election statutes, Senate discusses reform

A federal judge has declared unconstitutional various Virgin Islands election laws in judgment of a civil lawsuit, Republican National Committee, et al v. Virgin Islands Board of Elections, et al, which was filed August 2, 2022 in the U.S. District Court of the Virgin Islands, Division of St. Thomas and St. John, pictured.
A federal judge has declared unconstitutional various Virgin Islands election laws in judgment of a civil lawsuit, Republican National Committee, et al v. Virgin Islands Board of Elections, et al, which was filed August 2, 2022 in the U.S. District Court of the Virgin Islands, Division of St. Thomas and St. John, pictured.

ST. CROIX — The litigants in a civil lawsuit filed in federal court have reacted to the judge’s declaration that several of the election laws in the Virgin Islands Code are unconstitutional, while the Legislature of the Virgin Islands will consider the ruling as part of its ongoing discussion on election reform.

The Republican National Committee and Republican Party in the Virgin Islands won a civil lawsuit filed August 2, 2022 in the U.S. District Court of the Virgin Islands, Division of St. Thomas and St. John against the Virgin Islands Board of Elections and Supervisor of Elections Caroline Fawkes.

The chairman of the Republican Party in the Virgin Islands views last month’s judgment that declared 10 of the territory’s election laws unconstitutional as a victory for all residents.

The chairwoman of the Board of Elections said she expects that the board members will discuss the court’s decision, as well as whether to appeal, in an upcoming meeting.

The RNC and VIGOP challenged the constitutionality of several provisions of the Virgin Islands Code that directly and extensively regulate plaintiffs’ internal party governance, operations, and selection of party leaders.

Chief Judge Robert Molloy declared unconstitutional 10 of those provisions in his January 10 judgment. The court found that eight statutes in Title 18, and the first sentence contained in section 304(a) — relating to when members of the territorial committee shall meet for organization — impermissibly infringe upon plaintiffs’ freedom of association guaranteed by the First Amendment by imposing severe burdens upon their internal party operations.

Additionally, the court found that the second sentence contained in section 232 (relating to the responsibility of the Board of Elections for certifying the process to be used by any political party to select party officers and candidates for public office) is not only unconstitutionally vague, but also violates constitutional due process by failing to provide a means of redress. 

“I think Judge Molloy got it absolutely correct,” Gordon Ackley, VIGOP chairman, said. “These are private organizations, and the government has no right to come in and tell a private organization when it has to meet, how many members it has to have. And if you think about it, it’s a big breach.”

Gordon Ackley, Republican Party in the Virgin Islands chairman, speaks during the party’s Commit to Caucus event January 27 at the Palms at Pelican Cove on St. Croix.
Gordon Ackley, Republican Party in the Virgin Islands chairman, speaks during the party’s Commit to Caucus event January 27 at the Palms at Pelican Cove on St. Croix.

Ackley discussed the significance of the judgment, which he noted gives the VIGOP the right to assemble and pick its own members.

“I think that it’s a victory, not for the Republican Party, but it’s a victory for all Virgin Islanders,” he said. “And it goes back to separation of government from private enterprises.”

Dennis Lennox, VIGOP executive director, also spoke about what the win in federal court means for the territory’s Republican Party.

“We’re thrilled at the decision because like Rotary, Kiwanis Club, or PTA, the government of the Virgin Islands has no business telling a private organization how to structure and govern itself,” he said.

Alecia Wells, Board of Elections chair, said the board has not met since Molloy filed his judgment. She said she expects that the board members will discuss the matter during its next meeting later this month or in March, including whether the board will appeal.

“The board would have to make that decision,” she said.

Alecia Wells, Virgin Islands Board of Elections chair, speaks during a BOE board meeting on February 6, 2023, during which she was elected as the board’s chair.
Alecia Wells, Virgin Islands Board of Elections chair, speaks during a BOE board meeting on February 6, 2023, during which she was elected as the board’s chair.

If the judgment stands following a potential appeal, the Legislature of the Virgin Islands would be able to update the election laws declared unconstitutional.

“We’re going through a whole discussion about election reform, and there’s a number of areas that’s under consideration for reform, and certainly the judge’s decision will be part of that decision as we endeavor to change the landscape and modernize the landscape of the election process, and work toward true election reform,” Senate President Novelle Francis Jr. said.

Plaintiffs alleged that 12 sections of the VI Code in Title 18 (232, 301(a), 301(c) and (d), 303(a)-(c), 304, 305, 306(a), 307, and 342) violated their First Amendment right of association, and impermissibly infringed their right to association by allowing defendants control of matters concerning internal party operations. Plaintiffs claimed the statutes do not “further any compelling government interest.”

In support of their claims, plaintiffs recounted issues, including litigation, that arose because of defendants’ interference in what plaintiffs believe are strictly internal party matters, Molloy noted in his memorandum opinion. Plaintiffs alleged that, due to the nature of the intrusion of the statutes, the Republican National Committee was prevented “from seating Republican Party officials from the Virgin Islands as part of the RNC itself during the 2020 presidential nomination process, resulting in Republican voters in the Virgin Islands lacking representation on the RNC.” Plaintiffs further alleged that no officers from the VIGOP participated in the RNC’s 2016 organizational meeting because of defendants’ actions that year, as well as that the defendants’ implementation of the statutes caused the VIGOP leadership irregularities in 2018 and 2020.

Defendants, in response to the claims, admitted that political parties have a First Amendment right of free association that shields their inner workings from state control to a certain extent, as well as that determination of the boundaries of association and the internal structure that will allow an association to pursue its goals are protected by the constitution, Molloy wrote in his opinion. The defendants, however, maintained that such rights are not absolute.

Defendants’ primary argument in support of their motion for summary judgment was that the “challenged provisions do not impair plaintiffs’ right to associate, and if they did, any impairment would be insubstantial and reasonably related to a governmental interest,” according to Molloy’s opinion. Defendants further contended that the challenged provisions were not unconstitutional because “Virgin Islands law does not penalize plaintiffs for violating Title 18.”

Chief Judge Robert Molloy of the U.S. District Court of the Virgin Islands, pictured, has declared several of the territory’s election laws unconstitutional in his judgment in the 2022 civil lawsuit of Republican National Committee, et al v. Virgin Islands Board of Elections, et al.
Source: District Court of the Virgin Islands
Chief Judge Robert Molloy of the U.S. District Court of the Virgin Islands, pictured, has declared several of the territory’s election laws unconstitutional in his judgment in the 2022 civil lawsuit of Republican National Committee, et al v. Virgin Islands Board of Elections, et al.

In his opinion, Molloy noted that plaintiffs claimed the challenged provisions “directly regulate the RNC’s and VIGOP’s internal party governance, operations, and selection of party leaders … ,” that “strict scrutiny applies,” and that defendants have failed to carry their burden of showing both a compelling governmental interest, as well as that the statutes are narrowly-tailored to achieve that compelling interest. He wrote that plaintiffs submitted that the interpretation and application of the statutory provisions at issue involve questions of law to be determined by the court. He noted plaintiffs argued that, because the issues in the matter at bar are the same as those presented to the U.S. Supreme Court in Eu v. San Francisco County Democratic Central Committee, 489 U.S. 214 (1989), the holding in Eu is applicable and controlling, and, under Eu, they are entitled to summary judgment.

The court granted, in part, and denied, in part, plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment. The court declared unconstitutional 10 election laws in the VI Code. The court denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

Chief Judge Robert Molloy of the U.S. District Court of the Virgin Islands on January 10 declared 10 of the territory’s election laws unconstitutional in his judgment in the 2022 civil lawsuit of Republican National Committee, et al v. Virgin Islands Board of Elections, et al.
Source: District Court of the Virgin Islands
Chief Judge Robert Molloy of the U.S. District Court of the Virgin Islands on January 10 declared 10 of the territory’s election laws unconstitutional in his judgment in the 2022 civil lawsuit of Republican National Committee, et al v. Virgin Islands Board of Elections, et al.

In addition to the 10 provisions the court declared unconstitutional, plaintiffs claimed two provisions of the VI Code — Sections 301(c) and (d) — interfered with the VIGOP’s internal rules surrounding the party emblem, and who has authorized use, arguing those rules should be within the sole purview of the party, not the Board of Elections or supervisor of Elections. The court found that both statutes are preempted by the Lanham Act and are void to the extent they allow a VI political party to use its national affiliates’ trademarked symbol, emblem, or insignia without the approval of the owner of the trademark.

Tom Eader is the Chief Reporter for WTJX. Originally from South Bend, Indiana, Eader received his bachelor's degree in journalism from Ball State University, where he wrote for his college newspaper. He moved to St. Croix in 2003, after landing a job as a reporter for the St. Croix Avis. Eader worked at the Avis for 20 years, as both a reporter and photographer, and served as Bureau Chief from 2013 until their closure at the beginning of 2024. Eader is an award-winning journalist, known for his thorough and detailed reporting on multiple topics important to the Virgin Islands community. Joining the WTJX team in January of 2024, Eader brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the newsroom.
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