Dec. 18, 2006 — The Virgin Islands entered a new era of justice Monday as the first judges of the V.I. Supreme Court — Maria M. Cabret, Rhys S. Hodge and Ive A. Swan — took the oath of office in front of a packed house of well-wishers, colleagues, dignitaries, families and friends.
The ceremony, held in Government House's grand ballroom in Christiansted, was administered by Judge D. Michael Fisher, of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"Today marks the pinnacle of my legal career," said Swan after thanking family and friends. "Gov. Turnbull made a wise and sagacious decision," he said. "We will move the [Supreme] court from its infancy to adulthood and prove him right."
Swan began his legal career in 1970 and has held the office of attorney general, along with judgeships on the Territorial, Superior and Appellate courts. The Senate confirmed Swan to the Supreme Court in October.
Legislation establishing the Supreme Court was originally proposed by Sen. Carlton Dowe in the 24th Legislature. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull signed the measure into law October 2004. Since then controversy over the location of the court has led to further legal action. On June 28 Turnbull filed a suit in Superior Court to challenges the Senate's decision to place the court on St. Croix. Turnbull maintained the position that the "principal offices of the three branches of territorial government should be located in the capital."
Swan addressed the controversy of the Supreme Court's location in his remarks. "It is not about buildings, it is about justice and adjudicating cases." He described the evolution of the first Supreme Court of the United Sates, noting that the original location was in Philadelphia before it was moved to Washington, D.C., where at one point it was located in a basement office.
"It is with great pride that we are gathered here on this historic day," said Turnbull, speaking after the three judges were presented with their robes and gavels. Calling the ceremony a "milestone on the road to greater autonomy," Turnbull acknowledged the controversies that led to the creation of the Supreme Court. "Every bit of progress in the Virgin Islands has been met with struggle," he said. "We shouldn't fear conflict or disagreement."
"At a very early age, the elders in my family instilled in me a deep sense of justice," Cabret recounted during her remarks to the gathered crowd. She thanked her family for "molding me and equipping me with an excellent moral compass." Cabret noted that the Virgin Islands was the last jurisdiction under the U.S flag to get a Supreme Court and suggested that an organization be established to record the court's history so a "formal legacy of the institution" could be maintained.
The territory has had the power to create a Supreme Court since 1984 when Congress amended the Revised Organic Act. However, that right was never taken advantage of until now.
"We are starting with a clean slate," Cabret said. "It is an awesome task, but we will do it and do it well."
Cabret, who has served 19 years on the bench, received her Juris Doctor Degree in 1978 and worked with the Territorial Court and the Public Defender's office until moving to private practice. In 1987 she was nominated to serve as judge of the Territorial Court — the second woman and the first of Puerto Rican descent to have such an honor.
Hodge, selected as chief justice of the newly formed court, said, "Today is the culmination of a process that started more then two years ago." He said that although the court will have the "final say" for the next 15 years, its judgments will be subject to review by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. "I hope we don't send you too much business, and I hope the oversight is short lived," Hodge said to Fisher.
Hodge received his Juris Doctor Degree in 1977 and clerked with the late Almeric L. Christian at the V.I. District Court. In 1979 he opened his private practice, which has been serving the St. Thomas community for more than 21 years.
Hodge was confirmed as judge of the Territorial Court, now the Superior Court, in 1999 and named presiding judge in 2006. He is currently serving his second six-year term on the bench.
Turnbull took the opportunity to voice his wish list for the territory. "It is time for Virgin Islanders to be able to vote for president [of the United States] like any other U.S. citizen and it's time for our delegate to have a 'real vote' in Congress," Turnbull said. The chief executive also mentioned that V.I. soldiers "have never failed to answer the call" of their country and continue to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We demand equality under the great flag of our country," Turnbull said.
The Supreme Court will be tasked with hearing the appeals from the V.I. Superior Court.
"Today is a special day," said Delegate Donna M. Christensen as she addressed the new justices. Christensen had personal stories of each of the new judges, saying that it was a pleasure to see how their careers have progressed. "We have forged bonds that can never be broken," she added.
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