The court hearing into the Tara Rivers election petition case began Wednesday morning with both the minister whose eligibility is being questioned and her challenger taking the stand.
In testimony before Chief Justice Anthony Smellie, Minister for Education, Employment and Gender Affairs Ms Rivers said she had always been a loyal citizen of the Cayman Islands, living and training abroad only to boost what she called her “passion” for her home country.
Taking the stand in the early afternoon, Ms Rivers denied pledging allegiance to another country, gaining her US passport by virtue of birth and using it only to facilitate international travel.
Extensive training and education programmes in both Canada and the UK had enabled her to qualify to practise in financial services, she said.
Having gained the requisite qualifications, she told the court, she returned immediately to her Uncle Bob Road home in West Bay.
“My intention was never to practise in the UK,” she said. “The plan was always to practise law and to contribute to the Cayman Islands, my home.”
She testified to attending extensive training programmes as often as once per week, saying she needed to gain education and experience “in a growing competitive environment, requiring I get experience dealing in the law of Cayman and the UK.
“I did not stay beyond the time necessary, and returned to better my home, always to gain experience to improve my country,” she said.
In protracted morning arguments, Chief Justice Smellie declined to hear from West Bay voters about the 22 May election of Ms Rivers, calling it a “secondary issue”. Chief Justice Smellie elected instead to move on to testimony from John Gordon Hewitt, the original complainant in the electoral challenge to the minister.
Mr. Hewitt, husband of former West Bay United Democratic Party candidate Velma Powery-Hewitt, challenged the election of Ms Rivers, claiming she was disqualified from contesting 22 May general election because of legal stipulations regarding both local residency and possession of a foreign passport.
His petition, filed by attorney Steve McField, asserts that Ms Rivers was not qualified to be nominated or elected as a member of the Legislative Assembly to represent West Bay because she holds an American passport and did not live in Cayman for seven consecutive years prior to the election. The petition asks that Mrs. Powery-Hewitt be elevated to the West Bay seat, having placed fifth in the four-seat district.
Counsel for Ms Rivers, professor, Queen’s Counsel and constitutional expert Jeffrey Jowell, pointed to inconsistencies in Mr. Hewitt’s complaint, suggesting he had no evidence for allegations regarding public knowledge of Ms Rivers’s qualifications to run or failures by returning officers to ascertain her status.
Mr. Jowell described the effort of “a very talented Caymanian woman” who “sought to improve her skills abroad, then returned to subject herself to a vote.
“Now, the loyal husband of another candidate who failed seeks to overturn the clear choice of the voters.”
More than 60 people crammed into the courtroom Wednesday to watch the proceedings, including Mrs. Powery-Hewitt. Also in attendance was Ms Rivers’s fellow Coalition for Cayman-backed MLA Winston Connolly and her West Bay running mate Mervin Smith, as well as People’s Progressive Movement’s candidates Kenny Bryan and Dalkeith Bothwell.
Kent McTaggart, a candidate who dropped out of the election when he was deemed ineligible to run in Bodden Town because he had not been resident full time in Cayman in the seven years before 22 May, was also in the courtroom Wednesday.
Ms Rivers was due to face cross examination in the later afternoon.
The hearing, which is set down for two days and due to close Thursday, continues.