Attorney General Baba Aziz issued a legal opinion on Tuesday backing Speaker of the House Ingrid Moses-Scatliffe’s decision to continue serving in her role despite press reports indicating that she plans to run as a National Democratic Party candidate in the upcoming general elections.
Ms. Moses-Scatliffe first came under fire at a House of Assembly sitting two weeks ago when Deputy Premier Dr. Kedrick Pickering — an NDP member who is not expected to run with the party in the election — said having an upcoming candidate serve as speaker threatens the House’s integrity.
Dr. Pickering (R-D7) expressed doubts that a candidate could be impartial, and his sentiments were echoed by the two opposition members. Ms. Moses-Scatliffe never actually confirmed her candidacy — despite being asked to — but did request that the AG bring a legal opinion on the matter to the next HOA sitting.
On Tuesday, Mr. Aziz read excerpts of that opinion, noting that his work was based on the assumption that Ms. Moses-Scatliffe plans to contest the next general election, which is constitutionally due by the Aug. 23, 2019.
The opinion was based on relevant provisions of the 2007 Virgin Islands Constitution; statutory enactments; the HOA standing orders as amended in 2016; the common law principle of impartiality and neutrality; comparative analysis of speakerships in Commonwealth countries; and Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice, an authoritative work on parliamentary procedure, according to the AG.
“The speaker holds an elected office and is not a public officer by virtue of section three of the Virgin Islands Constitution Order 2007,” he said, noting that the constitutional requirement for public officers to step down before contesting a seat in the House of Assembly does not apply to her.
There are also no explicit statutory prohibitions against the speaker having a party affiliation, Mr. Aziz added, noting that speakers are sometimes party members in Commonwealth countries including Canada, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Furthermore, he argued, HOA members have a constitutional remedy if they deem the speaker to be acting partially: They can move a motion for her removal.
After the AG provided his opinion, Opposition Leader Andrew Fahie asked Ms. Moses-Scatliffe to confirm whether or not she is actually a candidate, reiterating an unanswered request he made in the previous sitting.
“The reason being because if [the answer] is yes, then the House has to reanalyse and reevaluate in terms of if fairness will be sought,” Mr. Fahie (R-D1) argued. “If it is no, then the House can put this to rest forever.”
Ms. Moses-Scatliffe, however, shot him down again.
“Notwithstanding the opinion of the honourable attorney general, when I sit in the chair as speaker of the house, that is the persona that I take on and one that I have always upheld and will continue to uphold,” she argued.
She added that she had promised to be impartial and uphold parliamentary procedure when she was elected speaker in 2011.
“This I have done for the last seven years without once having to sustain a motion of no confidence in me as speaker,” Ms. Moses-Scatliffe said.
After her response, opposition member Julian Fraser asked if she would be amenable to entertaining a legal opinion from “the other side.”
Ms. Moses-Scatliffe responded that Mr. Aziz’s opinion was independent.
Mr. Fraser (RD3), however, disagreed.
“Madam Speaker, with all due respect, I do not consider the opinion given by the AG, requested by you as speaker, on a matter pertaining to you, to be an independent legal opinion,” he said. “I believe it is an opinion rendered on your request and, naturally, that’s what I expected — what he gave.”
As Mr. Fraser began to restate his previous request, Ms. Moses-Scatliffe interjected and ordered him to take his seat.
“You just in my view crossed a very thin line because what you’re doing is impugning improper motive to the attorney general who continues to advise the House,” she said, adding, “I cannot believe that because, in my view, all members are supposed to be honourable members, and I refuse to believe that we would want to — putting it legally — legitimize rumours, because that’s what you’re asking to do.”
The speaker then reiterated the AG’s argument, noting that if members believed there was an issue with her impartiality they could motion for a vote of no confidence in her speakership.
Ms. Moses-Scatliffe then went on to describe praise she has received from members of both parties.
“Members on both sides of the aisle — in addition to members of the public — have asked me on multiple occasions to take it to the next step in representational politics,” she said.
When opposition members continued to protest further, Ms. Moses-Scatliffe banged her gavel, silenced them and called a temporary recess.
As she left the room, Messrs. Fahie and Fraser could be heard continuing the discussion.
“You can’t speak on something for yourself,” Mr. Fahie said, adding, “If it’s a matter dealing with you, you can’t rule on you.”
When the House resumed its sitting about 40 minutes later, Ms. Moses-Scatliffe reiterated that the attorney general’s opinion stood and ruled the matter “closed.” She then proceeded to the next item on the agenda.
Last week, she declined to comment to the Beacon on the matter.