In May 2013, Velma Powery-Hewitt ran for legislative office in West Bay, finishing fifth in the four-member district. The winners included fellow United Democratic Party candidates McKeeva Bush, Bernie Bush and Eugene Ebanks – as well as one independent candidate, Tara Rivers, who would go on to join the Progressives government in a ministerial position.
Following the election, John Gordon Hewitt, Velma’s husband, filed a legal challenge, questioning the eligibility of Ms. Rivers to hold elected office. Mr. Hewitt claimed that he was merely the “token plaintiff” in the constitutional challenge, which was actually orchestrated by the UDP, and that he had understood the UDP would pay for all costs incurred on his behalf.
We have no reason to doubt the veracity of Mr. Hewitt’s testimony, which was supported in court by attorney and UDP consultant Steve McField.
Mr. Hewitt said businessman Renard Moxam (another 2013 UDP candidate) had initially agreed to fund the action but backed out after splitting ways from the party. After Mr. Moxam exited the picture, Mr. Hewitt said further financial support from the UDP never materialized, and after the constitutional challenge failed, he was left liable for more than US$200,000 in legal bills incurred by Ms. Rivers for her defense.
If true, Mr. Hewitt’s narrative paints a portrait of the UDP abandoning an ally when it came time to pay the piper. This unflattering account of the UDP’s machinations could well have negative political consequences during the upcoming 2017 election.
The challenge to Ms. Rivers’s eligibility was based on two main arguments: that Ms. Rivers failed to meet Cayman residency requirements because she had been working abroad in London; and that Ms. Rivers possessed a U.S. passport.
The case seemed anything but frivolous.
In a ruling that is still being discussed to this day, Chief Justice Anthony Smellie determined that Ms. Rivers was eligible to hold office: that her time working at a London law firm was equivalent to studying at an “educational institution,” and that her possession of a U.S. passport did not indicate she was acting “under an obligation or obedience to a foreign power.”
Since it concerned the validity of anyone’s election to the Legislative Assembly, Chief Justice Smellie’s ruling was “final and not subject to any appeal” to a higher court. As is customary in Cayman’s court system, he further ordered that the loser, Mr. Hewitt, pay the legal costs of the victor, Ms. Rivers.
So not only did Mr. Hewitt, now age 80, lose the challenge, he also lost his financial security in what should be his golden years.
It seemed to us inappropriate that someone would have to risk their livelihood in order to seek clarification on a constitutional matter from a judge. After all, in Mr. Hewitt’s case, his challenge was not just to the potential benefit of his spouse, but was an important interpretation of the foundational legal document of the Cayman Islands.
Since that time, the Legislative Assembly has gone back and “fixed” that section of the law, now allowing challenges to candidates’ eligibility to be brought by the government’s elections supervisor, rather than just by a private individual.
Small consolation for Mr. Hewitt.