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Witnesses All in Favor of a Territorial Appeals Court

July 8, 2004 – The idea of a territorial supreme court found favor with witnesses appearing before the Senate Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee on Thursday, but an unrelated provision of a bill to create such an appellate tribunal met with some opposition.
The committee took testimony on the bill that would establish the Supreme Court of the Virgin Islands, rename the V.I. Territorial Court and establish a Judicial Nominating Commission. It was the judicial nominations idea that sparked dissent.
"It is time that we show the U.S. government that we are capable of running our own affairs," Harold Willocks, territorial public defender, said, urging the committee to approve the establishment of an appellate court.
Territorial Court Presiding Judge Maria Cabret said the "moment is long overdue."
She said the Virgin Islands has had the power to create a supreme court since 1984, when Congress amended the Revised Organic Act that serves as the territory's constitution.
"Twenty years later, this grant of power has not been exercised," Cabret said while commending Sen. Carlton Dowe, the bill's sponsor, for his initiative.
Dowe told his colleagues: "This issue is bigger than any one of us; so, when we look at it, we need to do so in context."
The V.I. Bar Association president, Amos Carty, said enacting the bill would be the final step in the "long struggle" toward attaining an independent local judiciary.
"It is no understatement that the legislation being considered by this committee this morning is no less historic or significant than any other legislation that gave Virgin Islanders the right to govern ourselves," Carty said.
The establishment of a V.I. Supreme Court, he said, "will eliminate the final remnants of federal judicial involvement in purely local legal matters and firmly place the local judiciary on equal footing with its state and territorial counterparts."
The Virgin Islands is the only sovereign jurisdiction under the U.S. flag that does not have its own court of appeals, Judge Rhys Hodge said. "Every other U.S. territory or possession has established its own appellate court, including Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico," he said.
The Judicial Nominating Commission would submit candidates for judgeships to the governor, who would have to make a select from the nominees submitted.
Most committee members showed support for an appellate court, but several took issue with the judicial nominations idea.
"I don't know why it is necessary," Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. said of the commission, adding that Territorial Court judges are appointed by the governor on his own volition, and they are all "outstanding." White said the same could be done with the Supreme Court judges.
"I do not support the nominating commission," Berry said, agreeing with White that the governor can appoint the judges on his own.
Sen. David Jones said he also does not support the nominating commission, although he supports the supreme court concept.
"This bill, I think, is a move in the right direction," Jones said. "However, I do not believe in piecemeal legislation for political reform."
Jones said the Legislature should focus first on crafting a V.I. constitution.
Cabret said Guam does not have its own constitution but does have a supreme court.
In response to questioning by Berry, Cabret said that about $2 million to $3 million a year would be needed for the operating budget of a V.I. Supreme Court.
Berry expressed concern over whether that amount could be added to the fiscal year 2005 budget.
"I think that we need to pass this legislation," Cabret said. "This bill is too important for us to table."
The bill also provides for Territorial Court to be renamed the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands.
All committee members were present: Sens. Berry, Dowe, Emmett Hansen II, Jones, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Shawn-Michael Malone and Russell. Also present was Sen. White, who is not a member of the committee.

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