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Bill to Strengthen Family Court Receives Strong Support

June 14, 2006 – A bill mandating the governor appoint a permanent judge for the Family Court division in each district would greatly improve the efficiency of the judiciary system, according to Judge Maria M. Cabret, presiding judge of the V.I. Superior Court.
During a Rules and Judiciary Committee meeting Wednesday, Cabret and other testifiers spoke in support of the bill, which senators unanimously approved and sent onto the full legislative body for a final vote.
Cabret said that while St. Croix does have one permanent Family Court judge, St. Thomas uses a rotating system in which judges alternate every year. She said this system is "costly and time consuming" and has "never worked well."
"The highly specialized nature of the caseload within the division requires that we appoint individuals with the skills and interest necessary to address a wide range of matters, including child abuse, neglect, divorce and the termination of parental rights," Cabret said. "With a rotating system, the children involved in these cases won't get the attention that they need from the judge. The [rotating] system is a waste of resources and money."
Judge Patricia Steele, the family court judge on St. Croix, further told senators that selecting a permanent judge for the division allows for "consistency" within the judiciary system. "I know what I have in terms of my caseload," she said. "I am able to advise the clients appropriately, and I know what services to recommend for each child. And because of this, I am able to render better decisions, make better service plans and work towards our goal of family reunification."
Steele explained that in a rotating system, judges "come in at a disadvantage" because they have to "pick up" where the previous judge left off – which could, she said, add to the backlog of cases already pending within the courts.
"Juvenile delinquents spend years in the system … while abused and neglected children spend a minimum of two years. In a rotating system that time is lengthened, because new judges have to familiarize themselves with the caseload, then decide how they would want to proceed," Steele said.
She added that appointments to the family courts should be consistent with an individual's interest in children, their experience and their ability to handle the caseload. Steele also said the term of a family court judge should be six years – equal to the current amount of time other judges serve on the bench before they are re-appointed.
Cabret also spoke in favor of another bill which increases the cap on claims filed in small claims court from $5,000 to $10,000. "This measure would not put an additional burden on the courts since most of the claims filed are already in excess of $5,000. And since many residents have been giving up part of their claim amounts just to be able to meet the $5,000 cap, this bill would increase the access to the justice system for parties of limited means," she said.
While the bill was voted onto the full legislative body for final vote, Sen. Ronald E. Russell said he would be introducing an amendment to reduce the $10,000 amount to $7,500.
In other news, a bill prohibiting the use or sale of traffic signal pre-emption devices was held in committee after Sen. Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, the bill's sponsor, introduced an amendment to "enhance" the measure.
Encarnacion said the amendment is designed to limit the private use of radio communication devices used by law enforcement officials. "Unauthorized operators of these devices can tune into police channels, and find out exactly where officers are heading and when," Encarnacion explained.
Sen. Liston Davis added that "quite a few people" have radios that pick up the police transmissions. "And it has been used by criminal elements to monitor the police radios and commit crimes," he added.
While in support of the amendment, other senators said they wanted to hear testimony from police representatives on how the restriction would impact the public and the department.
Testifiers speaking at the meeting also proposed other additions to the bill–which they called "a bit premature" since signal pre-emption devices are not currently built into the traffic lights used within the territory.
"Such a device is a great help to law enforcement officials, since they can help cut down on response time when there's an emergency," Olvado Graham, district fire chief for St. Croix, said. "One was installed by Public Works 10 years ago inside the fire station downtown. The problem is that the device is operated only within the fire station – there are no remote controls placed on emergency vehicles so that the device can be used on an emergency run. This should be included in the bill."
Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson said the use of blinking lights or sirens imitating those used by police officers should also be prohibited. "We've had a problem with people using these devices to pull residents over and rob them," he said. "That's something we have to deal with now."
Senators also held a bill renaming St. Croix's Route 70 (West) – from Hannah's Rest to the Frederiksted Post Office – to Martin Luther King Drive West; and Route 70 (East) – from the Golden Rock Shopping Center to Basin Triangle – Martin Luther King Drive East.
Sen. Neville James, the bill's sponsor, said an amendment had to be added to the bill since one of the roads has already been designated by Public Works as Emancipation Drive. He said an alternative route would be specified at the next Rules Committee meeting on June 22.
Present during Wednesday's meeting were Davis, Encarnacion, Nelson and Russell, along with Sens. Louis P. Hill and Juan Figueroa-Serville.
Sens. Lorraine L. Berry and Roosevelt C. David were absent.
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