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AG Walker Files Supreme Court Brief In Support of Voting Rights For Virgin Islanders

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CHARLOTTE AMALIE — The Virgin Islands government has joined a Guamanian Supreme Court case that could allow federal absentee voting rights for some territorial residents.

The government’s filing joins the Virgin Islands Bar Association, and two collections of legal and constitutional scholars in the case, Segovia v. USA, which challenges an Illinois law enacted to comply with the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.

Attorney General Claude Walker on Thursday filed an amicus brief with the United States Supreme Court seeking voting rights for territorial residents, the Virgin Islands Department of Justice said.

The amicus curiae was submitted in support of eight former Illinois residents currently living in the Virgin Islands who took their case to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, challenging federal and states statutes that do not allow them to obtain absentee ballots for federal elections in Illinois, while other former Illinois residents who move to some territories can still vote in federal elections in that state, according to the VIDOJ. They argued that this result was a violation of their equal protection rights and their rights to travel protected by the Due Process Clause.  The appeals court, in its Jan. 18 decision, rejected the plaintiffs’ claims and held that there was a rational basis for the inclusion of some territories but not others in the definition of the United States.

Walker is now seeking redress from the Supreme Court and has filed a writ of certiorari, petitioning the justices to hear the case.  AG Walker contends that for decades, American citizens living in the Virgin Islands have not been allowed to exercise their full voting rights as their counterparts on the mainland, although the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 established that all persons born in the U.S. Virgin Islands on or after Feb. 25, 1927, are U.S. citizens at birth.

“How is it that we, as Virgin Islands residents, have the right to vote for the President when we live in Atlanta or Orlando, but as soon as we hit Cyril E. King Airport, that right is stripped from us? That is certainly not fair and we should not stay on the sidelines and allow this to continue,” the attorney general said.  “As we celebrate the Fourth of July, I am appealing to the Supreme Court to grant Virgin Islands residents our full voting rights; we are not asking for anything special, we are only seeking what other US citizens have.”

The brief, prepared by Solicitor General Pamela Tepper and Assistant Attorney General Su-Layne Walker, stresses the need for equal protection rights, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, to be exercised locally.  It also highlights the disparities in voting and the lack of parity between U.S. citizens in 50 states versus citizens of the territory, the VIDOJ said.

“In general, a person born in the United States Virgin Islands can relocate to the contiguous United States, become a resident of that state and then register to vote.  On the other hand, a person born in one of the 50 states can work in the United States Virgin Islands, live on a neighboring island, such as Tortola, British Virgin Islands, and still maintain his or her right to vote.  Seemingly absurd, but that minor geographical anomaly permits that U.S. citizen the full voting rights and representation in a U.S. election,” the brief states.

The brief further argues that equal protection rights should not be diminished by residency in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico or Guam.

“This case also is of importance to the United States Virgin Islands because it provides the Court with the opportunity to clearly find that U.S. citizens in the territories have the same right to equal protection under the laws as U.S. citizens living in the 50 states… Section 3 of the Revised Organic Act explicitly extends the Equal Protection Clause to residents of the Virgin Islands.  Moreover, this Court has consistently stated that the right to vote is a fundamental right under the Constitution.  Thus, the extension of fundamental voting rights to former U.S. citizens residing in some U.S. territories but not others plainly raises the most serious equal protection concerns,” the brief states.

The case is scheduled to come up for hearing before the Supreme Court later this year and the court is expected to make its decision in September.  If the Supreme Court were to find in favor of the petitioners, it would be one step closer to rectifying the disenfranchisement of Virgin Islands residents as part of the federal electorate.



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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy has been reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Caribbean region since 1989. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is originally from Detroit, Michigan.

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