Aug. 19, 2004 – Witnesses and members of the Senate Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee agreed at a hearing Wednesday that the time has come for the Virgin Islands to have its own appellate court. In question were the issues of how it would be funded and how its judges would be named.
At the hearing in the Frederiksted Legislative Conference Room, Chief District Judge Raymond L. Finch said a supreme court is necessary because the present appellate system does not allow judges to consider properly all the motions and case citations put forth by counsel appealing cases.
Finch, whose court is part of the federal judicial system, said that in jurisdictions having supreme courts, judges solely responsible for hearing appeals are able to "read, dissect and analyze all the nuances of the cases cited."
In the Virgin Islands, cases appealed from Territorial Court are reviewed by judicial panels consisting of two Distrtict Court judges and two Territorial Court judges. Since there are only two district judges, they serve all the time, while the territorial judges serve on a rotating basis.
Despite the territory's lack of a full appellate court, however, Finch said justice has been served. He said 99 percent of cases are decided in executive session.
Choosing his words carefully, Finch said: "The present appellate division does not have the time available to properly consider and move and determine appellate cases judicially." He added that despite the hardships imposed on the judges assigned, "95 per cent of our appealed cases have held up" to higher scrutiny.
Territorial Court Presiding Judge Maria M. Cabret noted that a federal court now has the last opinion on locally appealed cases. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia hears appeals and reviews any laws passed by the Legislature or orders executed by the governor, even though a case may be based purely on local law.
Cabret called for autonomy of the court, saying simply that "it is time." She noted that the territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands already have supreme courts.
Also testifying in support of the bill were Amos W. Carty Jr., president of the V.I. Bar Association, and Joel Holt, chair of its Judiciary Committee. "The time has come to create our own supreme court to lead the judiciary of the Virgin Islands to the 21st century," Holt told the senators.
Responding to questions from Sen. Lorraine Berry, the committee chair, Cabret said it would cost about $3.9 million to establish the new court covering operating costs, salaries and fringe benefits. Not included in that figure is the cost of buying, renovating or renting space to house the new court.
Cabret said there would be an initial savings of about $400,000, as the court would eliminate the need for the present Judicial Council, and its staff could be transferred to the new court.
"The local government has already begun to staff the Supreme Court," Cabret said.
Disagreement over Judicial Nominating Committee
The bill also calls for the establishment of a judicial nominating committee that would approve a pool of candidates for seats on the supreme court. The governor would have to select his nominees from the approved pool and they would require legislative confirmation. Witnesses and legislators alike were split on this issue at Wednesday's hearing.
Finch said the advantage is that such a process "will remove political influence to some extent from the nomination process; it will be more public and open."
Sen. Ronald Russell, sponsor of the bill, expressed support, saying "Let's lessen the effects of politics in the nomination of judges." However, he also said he is unwilling to sacrifice passage of the bill over the nominating committee issue.
"If the Senate feels that the nominating committee is a stumbling block, I am willing to rework the bill so it can move forward," Russell, a lawyer, said. He also asked that provisions addressing speedy trial and a trial-monitoring system be added to the measure.
Sen. Emmett Hansen II called the bill "a political maturation of the V.I. judiciary system." But he added that he initially had problems with the selection process, saying it reminded him of "the electoral college."
(In U.S. presidential elections, candidates are not elected directly by the voting public. Each state has a system for choosing "electors" based on its popular vote, with the number of electors determined by the state's population. The electors convene later in Washington, D.C., as the Electoral College to cast their ballots for the presidential candidates based on the mandates of their states. There have been instances most recently in 2000 in which the candidate receiving the majority of public votes was not elected president.)
Sen. Usie R. Richards spoke against the idea of a nominating committee. "I see the Legislature as the nomination committee," he said. "I see no need for the governor to receive a group of nominees from a committee."
Territorial Court judges now are nominated by the governor and must be confirmed by the Legislature.
Richards also expressed concerned about the bill's provision that in order to be considered by the committee for a judgeship, a candidate must have been actively practicing law in the Virgin Islands for the preceding 10 years.
Finch also touched on that point in his opening statement, calling the tenure period "problematic." He said many members of the bar temporarily stop practicing law to further their education, take care of family matters, travel or deal with illness. He also said the bill's wording should be changed to make it "gender neutral."
Holt suggested requiring candidates to have been engaged in active practice for 10 years, instead of 10 consecutive years.
The committee will consider the bill again Wednesday on St. Thomas and may at that time put it to a vote.
Committee members attending Wednesday's meeting were Sens. Berry, Hansen, Shawn-Michael Malone and Russell. Sens. Carlton Dowe, David Jones and Almando "Rocky" Liburd were not present. Richards, who also was in attendance, is not a member of the committee.
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