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Judge's Ruling: Supreme Court on St. Croix Is Unconstitutional

Jan. 23, 2007– In the latest, and possibly the final, twist in the Supreme Court saga, V.I. Superior Court Judge Leon Kendall has ruled that the Senate's decision to establish a Supreme Court on St. Croix — outside the territory's designated capital and "seat of government"– is unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court bill, which initially placed the court on St. Thomas, was proposed by Sen. Carlton Dowe in the 24th Legislature and subsequently signed into law by former Gov. Charles W. Turnbull on Oct. 29, 2004. The Senate, however, amended the bill in the 25th Legislature, approving an amendment proposed by Sen. Usie R. Richards to place the court on St. Croix.
While Turnbull subsequently vetoed the amendment, the Legislature overrode the veto, and a few months later, passed another bill appropriating funds for the construction of the court on St. Croix. A lawsuit filed last July by Turnbull challenges both pieces of legislation, asking the court to declare them unconstitutional based on language included in the Revised Organic Act of 1954, which, according to Kendall, stipulates that the court be located in Charlotte Amalie, the "designated seat of government."
The suit, which languished in Superior Court for nearly six months, has been mired in controversy, with the Legislature's attorney questioning, among other things, whether: a) Turnbull is allowed to bring charges against the Legislature, b) language included in the Revised Organic Act and its subsequent amendments specify where a Supreme Court shall be located, and c) whether the nomination of three Supreme Court justices was done in accordance with V.I. law.
Motions filed by both Sen. Ronald E. Russell and the Legislature's attorneys have thus far been denied, including a motion to dismiss the case, which claimed that: a) Turnbull "lacks standing" to sue the Legislature; b) that no "case or controversy" exists between the two parties; and c) that the Legislature is "immune from suit."
On the governor's side, attorney Carol Thomas-Jacobs argued during a hearing held last month that the Senate's decision violated certain sections of the Organic Act, which name Charlotte Amalie as the "seat of government"; and that the aforementioned act authorizes the governor to enforce both local laws and federal laws applicable to the territory.
Thomas-Jacobs explained that the designated capital should serve as a base of operations for all primary offices set up by the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. She added that while amendments attached to the Organic Act in 1984 authorize the Legislature to "create lower and appellate courts," they do not stipulate that those entities should be constructed outside the designated capital.
In his ruling, Kendall said he agreed with the governor's arguments, saying that the Revised Organic Act was designed to "unify" and "centralize" public-sector operations. "The Act would give a greater degree of autonomy, economic as well as political, to the people of the Virgin Islands," Kendall writes. "The act would bring about unification, establishing a single islands-wide [sic] Legislature, and directing the governor to reorganize the two municipal governments into a single Virgin Islands government."
Kendall adds that centralizing government entities would reduce operating costs, consolidate government functions and records, and allow for a reduction in government employees.
Kendall's statement contradicts arguments made by Douglas Brady, attorney for the Legislature, who explained during a hearing held Dec. 13 that Congress, by passing amendments to the Organic Act in 1984, sought to give the territory more autonomy by allowing the Legislature to set up local appellate courts.
Brady added the Organic Act does not say, in plain language, that the Supreme Court must be established on St. Thomas, and therefore the court, in ruling on the lawsuit, cannot "infer restrictions that don't appear in the language of the law."
Brady also said that the suit challenges the autonomy granted by the amendments, making the "territory beholden to the federal government to determine where our courts will be located."
In his ruling, however, Kendall says that while the amendments do give the territory "significant authority" when it comes to regulating its own affairs, the Legislature must still adhere to the mandates of the Revised Organic Act of 1954, which stipulates that the "seat of the judicial branch would be located" in Charlotte Amalie.
Kendall adds that the Legislature can establish the court on St. Croix if it petitions Congress to do so. "Until the Revised Organic Act is amended, though, the courts and the Legislature are duty-bound to ensure that all legislation is consistent with the … act," he writes.

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