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Primary Voting in Jeopardy as Court Ruling Strips Elections System of Hosting Authority

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Citizens residing on St. Croix voting early in October, 2020. By ERNICE GILBERT, V.I. CONSORTIUM

The ability of the Virgin Islands Elections System to conduct primary elections this year has been compromised following a court ruling that declared parts of the election code unconstitutional. Caroline Fawkes, the Elections Supervisor, alerted the Committee of the Whole that the primaries may not proceed unless legislative action is taken.

The controversy arose after a ruling by Chief Judge Robert Molloy of the District Court earlier this year, siding with the Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of the Virgin Islands. They challenged the constitutionality of several provisions in Title 18 of the Virgin Islands Code concerning election procedures. Legal counsel from the legislature noted the court’s decision was based on the vague wording in the law.

Of particular concern is Title 18, Section 232, which stipulates that party primaries are held on the first Saturday of August to select candidates for the general election. However, the second sentence of the section was deemed “unconstitutionally vague” by Judge Molloy, creating uncertainty as it does not provide a clear method of redress.

This ruling has placed the Elections Supervisor in a challenging position, as the unconstitutional sections must be disregarded, rendering the Supervisor unable to conduct the primaries. Although the Board of Elections delayed their response to the ruling—missing the deadline for an appeal—the situation has prompted a wave of criticism from lawmakers, who expressed disappointment over the lack of urgency shown by the Elections Office.

With the court’s decision, primary election responsibilities shift to individual political parties, introducing new costs estimated at around $250,000—expenses previously managed by the Office of the Elections Supervisor. This shift has sparked concerns about potential disenfranchisement, especially among smaller political entities that may struggle to fund their own primaries.

Further complicating matters, Senate President Novelle Francis highlighted a legal stipulation preventing any legislative amendments affecting elections within six months of a general election. Although there are exceptions for changes stemming from court orders, the tight timelines make immediate legislative action unlikely.

Despite these hurdles, the Elections Office is moving forward with preliminary activities, such as the submission of nomination petitions, even as it faces questions about the legality of these actions under the current law. Meanwhile, Senators voice frustration over repeated issues with election law clarity and adherence, worrying about the impact on the upcoming elections.

If no legislative changes are made promptly, and political parties fail to organize their own primaries, all candidates might head straight to the general election. This could necessitate parties choosing their candidates through internal means to comply with legal limits on the number of senatorial candidates from each party.

As the community awaits further action, the future of this year’s primary elections remains uncertain, with potential significant implications for the democratic process in the Virgin Islands.

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USVI Community Pulse

V.I. Parole Board to Review Cases of Manslaughter, Robbery, and Fraud

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The V.I. Parole Board has released its schedule for parole hearings in June, inviting testimony from victims, family members, and other interested parties.

To submit testimony, written comments or requests to appear before the Board must be sent by May 30, 2024. Correspondence should be addressed to:

Chairman of the Parole Board
John A. Bell Adult Correctional Facility
Rural Route 1, Box 9909
Kingshill, VI 00850-9715
Phone: (340) 773-6309 ext. 6817
Email: [email protected]

Hearing Schedule

June 3:
Edwin Rivera, convicted of second-degree robbery and currently incarcerated at the Citrus County Detention Facility in Florida, will have his parole application reviewed.

June 5:
Five inmates from the Tallahatchie County Facility in Missouri will be heard:

  • Jahzeel Fenton – First-degree assault (domestic violence)
  • Yamini Potter – Grand larceny, identity theft, wire fraud, and obstruction of justice
  • Jim Wallace – Voluntary manslaughter
  • Elieser Edwards – First-degree robbery
  • Dekumar Rogers – Unauthorized possession of a firearm

June 7:
The board will review the case of Mekel Blash, serving a sentence for second-degree murder, from the Wallens Ridge State Prison, Keen Mountain Correctional Facility, and Red Onion State Prison in Virginia.

June 10:
Applications from inmates at the John A. Bell Correctional Facility will be considered:

  • Francisco Tirado – First-degree unlawful sexual contact
  • Ethelbert Benjamin – First-degree unlawful sexual contact
  • William Wilson – Possession of marijuana with intent to distribute

June 11:
The board will hear applications from inmates of the Alexander A. Farrelly Criminal Justice Complex:

  • Curtis Petersen – Stalking (domestic violence)
  • Edward Paul – Unauthorized possession of a firearm
  • Ray Sanderson – First-degree attempted robbery
  • Shamall Fleming – Second-degree assault (domestic violence)

Public Advisory

The Parole Board reminds the public that parole eligibility is based on the inmate’s sentence and V.I. parole statutes. Inclusion on the eligibility list does not guarantee parole or a scheduled hearing. Parole can only be granted on the recommendation of the Director of the Bureau of Corrections. Additionally, release dates depend on various conditions, including approval by the State Council of Interstate Compact for the Supervision of Adult Offenders.

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USVI Prosecutors and Public Defenders Now Eligible for Law School Loan Repayment Grants

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Prosecutors and federal public defenders in the U.S. Virgin Islands now have a chance to ease their law school loan burdens through a new grant program.

The Virgin Islands Law Enforcement Planning Commission (LEPC) has announced the acceptance of applications for the John R. Justice Grant Program. This initiative, established during the Obama administration, provides loan repayment assistance to qualifying prosecutors and public defenders who commit to staying in their positions for at least three years.

This year, the LEPC has secured $51,840 in grant funds for the program. They plan to distribute approximately 10 grants of around $5,000 each, although the final amount could vary based on the number of applicants. “Awards may increase depending on the number of respondents,” the LEPC stated.

The grants are available to full-time federal public defenders and prosecutors. Full-time is defined as working at least 75% of a standard 40-hour work week. The selection process will prioritize applicants who demonstrate the greatest financial need in repaying their student loans.

The application process involves several steps: income verification, school loan verification, and the completion of a John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment Program Service Agreement. Applicants must also submit additional documents, including education loan records and proof of employment. The LEPC has indicated it will work with the Department of Labor to account for any increases in the cost of living.

Applications must be submitted electronically to the LEPC by 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, June 30, 2024, at [email protected]. Incomplete applications or those lacking required signatures and documents will not be considered.

For further information or to request an application, interested parties can contact Ms. Carmen Potter, Executive Assistant to the Director, at (340) 774-6400 or via email at [email protected].

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Christiansted Bypass Renamed to Honor DPW Veteran Aloy “Wenty” Nielsen

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In a ceremony held during National Public Works Week, the Christiansted Bypass was officially renamed in honor of Aloy “Wenty” Nielsen, a dedicated public servant whose contributions have significantly shaped the infrastructure across the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Nielsen, who has worked with the Department of Public Works (DPW) for over 30 years, was recognized for his extensive impact on public infrastructure projects on all three islands. DPW Commissioner Derek Gabriel highlighted Nielsen’s instrumental role in several key projects, including the development at Point Udall on St. Croix, the roundabout on St. John, and the Long Bay Revitalization on St. Thomas.

“It’s really the volume of work over his lifetime that we’re honoring,” said Jomo McClean, DPW’s Highway Program Manager and master of ceremonies. He emphasized Nielsen’s vision, patience, and leadership, which have been crucial in securing federal funds for large-scale projects like the Christiansted Bypass.

Senate President Novelle Francis praised Nielsen as a “quiet superhero” whose relentless efforts over the decades ensured the completion of the bypass despite numerous delays and setbacks. Lieutenant Governor Tregenza Roach also commended the shift towards honoring living individuals who have significantly contributed to the territory’s development.

Addressing the crowd, Nielsen expressed his humility and joy at the recognition. He reminisced about the bypass project, which originated from a 1972 study, describing it as a testament to persistence and cooperation. Initially met with public skepticism, the project eventually won widespread approval for its positive impact on traffic and quality of life in Christiansted.

Governor Albert Bryan Jr. admitted his early doubts about the project’s feasibility but acknowledged its successful completion as a result of determination and collaborative effort. Nielsen echoed this sentiment, noting the bypass’s role in easing traffic and providing a recreational space for residents.

While celebrating the honor, Nielsen credited the collective dedication of all those involved in making the project a reality. The Aloy “Wenty” Nielsen Bypass, he concluded, symbolizes not only physical connectivity but also the spirit of progress and cooperation within the community.

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