Rivers case heading to appellate court next month

The appellate court next month will hear a constitutional challenge to a recent Grand Court decision upholding Cabinet Minister Tara Rivers’s eligibility to hold public office in the Cayman Islands. 

The Cayman Islands Court of Appeal has scheduled a half-day session for the case to be heard on Nov. 15. The hearing will be conducted by appellate court president John Chadwick and justices Elliot D. Mottley and Anthony Campbell. 

It remains unclear as to what the court will address during the hearing. Among the possibilities are a full challenge to Ms Rivers’s eligibility; certain preliminary matters raised by appellant and defense attorneys being addressed and discussed; or whether the case will be accepted to be heard at all by the Court of Appeal, according to local legal experts. 

“It will be up to the Court of Appeal how they proceed with this appeal,” a court official said. 

Ms Rivers, who won a four-year term to represent the district of West Bay in the Legislative Assembly following a general election victory in May, had her eligibility to hold public office questioned in a court filing by the husband of another West Bay candidate who failed at the polls. 

In a June petition to the Grand Court, John Gordon Hewitt, husband of candidate Velma Powery-Hewitt, claimed Ms Rivers had violated constitutional provisions requiring seven years’ immediate residency in the Cayman Islands prior to nomination for election. According to the petition, Ms Rivers had also acquired, used and renewed an American passport – a document she was entitled to by virtue of her birth in the United States – thus violating constitutional provisions against local legislators holding foreign citizenship.  

Mrs. Powery-Hewitt finished fifth in the four-seat district of West Bay, receiving 411 fewer votes than Ms Rivers. 

Following her general election victory, Ms Rivers, who had run as an independent, accepted a Cabinet position as education and employment minister in newly elected Premier Alden McLaughlin’s People’s Progressive Movement-led administration.  

In a landmark decision Aug. 9, Cayman Islands Chief Justice Smellie cleared Ms Rivers of any wrongdoing and thus eligible to hold public office, citing expert testimony during a three-day trial in mid-July and accepting claims that Ms Rivers attended an “educational institution” while working at a London law firm – qualifying for a constitutional exemption for the local residency requirement. 

The chief justice’s ruling denied calls for a special election or for Mrs. Powery-Hewitt to be elevated to take the fourth elected seat in West Bay in Ms Rivers’s place. 

On Aug. 23, attorney Steve McField, acting on behalf of Mr. Hewitt, petitioned the Court of Appeal to overturn Justice Smellie’s decision, citing several “grave and serious errors” committed by the chief justice in his Grand Court judgment.  

While the law stipulates that the decision of the chief justice cannot be appealed in regards to election issues, the appellants have said that the Grand Court misinterpreted the Constitution in reaching its decision. 

The appellate court is scheduled to convene Nov. 4 for its final three-week session of the year.  

Lawyers for both sides declined to comment on the specifics of the case. 

“You will have to show up to see what the court does,” Mr. McField said. “I don’t know. It’s up to them.” 

Legal experts, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the half-day Nov. 15 session could simply delay a decision. 

“If one or more of the parties has any preliminary issues that would definitely get top billing, that can take a half-day,” he said. “I would have thought that, particularly for the issues, they would be going for instructions for the rest of the matter.” 

“Normally, that would be scheduled for the next sitting of the court,” which is scheduled for March. 

The issues raised by the appeal were likely too serious for the court to dismiss, the attorney said. 

“I think they have enough before them that they have to have a hearing,” he said. “This has raised the threshold.”