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Supreme Surprise: Court Leases Space on St. Thomas

Jan. 24, 2007 — The Supreme Court will occupy V.I. Port Authority property on St. Thomas in a lease agreement finalized Tuesday evening, VIPA officials announced at a board meeting Wednesday.
Coming as a bombshell at the authority's monthly board meeting, the announcement by VIPA Executive Director Darlan Brin took many there by surprise. Elliot MacIver Davis, acting attorney general, said later, "This was the first I'd heard of it."
Since early 2005, the executive and legislative branches of government have argued over which island should house the court. Before Wednesday's announcement, the latest development in the saga had been a judge's ruling that putting the Supreme Court on St. Croix was unconstitutional. V.I. Superior Court Judge Leon Kendall made that ruling on Monday, hours before Gov. John de Jongh's State of the Territory address. In making the ruling, Kendall challenged the idea of putting the court outside the territory's designated capital and "seat of government."
While the court battle continued, negotiations continued between VIPA and the Supreme Court. VIPA and Supreme Court Chief Judge Rhys Hodge conducted the lease negotiations, Brin said Monday.
The court will occupy the building that housed Little Switzerland for several years, across from the new Crown Bay Center on the road to the Crown Bay piers. "Negotiations were completed last night," Brin told the board. The court has leased 11,000 square feet at $22 per sqare foot, he said. The lease will run three years at that rate before increasing after three and five years.
The building would provide sufficient parking, Brin said, noting the structure is in "good shape," having been properly maintained by the previous tenants. The building will have to be redesigned, Brin said. "For one thing, an elevator will have to be installed," he said, "which costs about $100,000."
Board member Leslie Milliner asked if the Waste Management Authority was negotiating for the property. Brin said the agency had wanted the building, but they "wanted to lease it for $12 a square foot."
Davis made a motion to approve the plan: "I am honored and delighted to move to approve the Port Authority lease for the Supreme Court of the Virgin Islands in the capital of Charlotte Amalie, on the island of St. Thomas."
Davis, board chairman Robert O'Connor Jr. and Eleanor Thraen voted to approve
the lease agreement. Milliner and Robert Moorehead abstained. Moorehead was attending his first VIPA meeting in his capicity as acting Public Works Commissioner.
Sen. Ronald Russell, the Legislature's most vocal advocate for situating the court on St. Croix, had not heard of the news until Wednesday afternoon. The announcement took him by surprise, too: "That is very disappointing because, despite the fact that there's still pending litigation as to where the Supreme Court will be, and the fact that there's pending litigation as to whether the three Supreme Court judges were properly confirmed, they have moved forward like these cases couldn't affect them. That's unfortunate and disappointing."
Russell said he would issue a news release later Wednesday evening on the issue. Hodge and Senate President Usie Richards could not be reached Wednesday afternoon.
For a complete chronology of the Supreme Court saga, see "Judge's Ruling: Supreme Court on St. Croix is Unconstitutional."
Regular board members Milliner, O'Connor, Peguero and Thraen attended the meeting. Also attending were Davis, as acting attorney genera and Moorehead. Claudette Lewis, acting Planning and Natural Resources commissioner, appeared early at the meeting but did not stay. No one represented former Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards.
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