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Controversial Judge Won't Seek Reappointment

Feb. 18, 2009 — Women's advocacy groups reacted with a collective sigh of relief to V. I. Superior Court Judge Leon Kendall's announcement that he would retire Oct. 3 at the end of his six-year term.
In a statement addressed to Gov. John deJongh Jr., Kendall said his service on the bench "has been a distinct honor and privilege, and undoubtedly the highlight of my legal career." However, he said, "the time has come for me to no longer postpone my retirement from the world of work."
Community activist Maria Ferreras called the judge's decision "a preemptive strike."
"He knew the community wouldn't tolerate another judicial term," she said.
Kendall's tenure on the bench has been fraught with controversy, largely over his decisions based on his interpretation of the federal Bail Reform Act, decisions in which the judge takes a great deal of pride.
"When I assumed the bench," Kendall said in part of a longer statement, "bail was routinely being set in an arbitrary and capricious manner, contrary to law and the U.S. Constitution. Persons accused of crimes were routinely ordered to post money bail to the exclusion of other forms of bail, including personal recognizance and unsecured bond."
Most defendants abided by the terms he set, Kendall said.
"In correcting bail injustice, I have rendered over 500 decisions, none of which was ever appealed by the government or any defendant, much less reversed," the judge wrote. "Moreover, 90 percent of those persons released by me on bail appeared for trial or sentencing as ordered and otherwise complied with the conditions of their release."
One of the other 10 percent was Daniel Castillo, who, after being released on his own recognizance, strangled to death 6th grade Lockhart Elementary School honor student La 'Quina Hennis, for which Castillo is now serving a life sentence. (See "Castillo Gets Life Plus 30 Years.")
Kendall has been widely criticized by members of the community for his bail decisions, which peaked in a public protest in April 2007 for what many considered a pattern of allowing violent defendants to return to the community after posting little or no bail. (See "'Silent' Protest Against Judge Kendall Draws Diverse Crowd, Approving Honks.")
Kendall also lists among his accomplishments ordering the return to school of a 12th grade Ivanna Eudora Kean High School student "who had been illegally expelled because his pants were too long," a decision which resulted in protests from students and teachers. (See "Kean to Reopen Monday, Justice Files Appeal.")
The judge is a graduate of Howard University and Howard University Law School, and practiced law for nearly 30 years in local and federal capacities before taking the bench. He was general counsel to the V.I. Territorial Court (now Superior Court) for 15 years and served for many of those years under then-Chief Judge Verne Hodge, at the time, a strong supporter of Kendall, whom former Gov. Charles W. Turnbull nominated to the bench in July 2003.
Hodge endorsed Kendall at a Senate Rules Committee hearing, where he also sharply criticized a V.I. Bar Association poll in which the majority of respondents did not rate Kendall as highly qualified or qualified for the bench, according to Joel Holt, then chair of the group's Judiciary Committee. Kendall's nomination was approved by the 25th Legislature on a 10-4 vote. (See "Kendall for Court, Rezoning for Resort OK'd.") Contacted by the Source Wednesday, Hodge reserved comment on Kendall's announcement "at this time."
Kendall, once again, raised the ire of women's advocacy groups, whom he had previously castigated in open court. (See "Judge Kendall Gives Rapist Minimum Sentence, Says Victim was Lying.")
Kendall repeated those statements in his press release: "I leave the Bench proud of my accomplishments, despite the unwarranted criticism, primarily because of my bail decisions, by those who, because of their abysmal ignorance of fundamental principles of American Jurisprudence, unprincipled posturing and demagoguery, pose more of a clear and present danger to the Rule of Law, Judicial Independence and the Territory than most criminal defendants."
A joint statement was issued Wednesday by Mary Mingus and Clema Lewis of the Women's Coalition of St. Croix and Lynn Gittens Spencer of the V.I. Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council: "We know that the judge's criticism of our organizations … stems from our complaint about the judge to the V.I. Commission on Judicial Disabilities."
Kendall has continually failed to review bail decisions in light of potential threats to the victims or the community, they say.
"We have contended that Judge Kendall has unequivocally and repeatedly stated that 'the only purpose of bail is to ensure the defendant's appearance at trial,'" the advocates say.
A formal 53-page complaint about Kendall's conduct on the bench was sent to the V.I. Commission on Judicial Disabilities in April 2007 by an organization based in Washington, D.C.
Subsequently, two more complaints were filed with the commission, one by the Women's Coalition of St. Croix and the V.I. Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council, and another by St. Thomas businesswoman Jennifer Packard
However, in October 2007, Kendall filed suit in District Court asking the court to stop the commission's hearings, contending that the hearings would violate the separation-of-powers doctrine. Chief District Court Judge Curtis Gomez ruled in a 42-page opinion released in January 2008 that the territory's Revised Organic Act of 1954 gives the V.I. Legislature no authority to remove judges, and the Legislature cannot vest that authority to another body.
The commission has appealed Gomez's ruling, and is still awaiting a hearing before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
This decision leaves the territory with no mechanism for complaints against the judiciary, as noted by Ferraras and the womens groups. Kendall's decision to retire "is not the biggest part of the problem," Ferreras said
"We are being held hostage," she said. "For a long time we have had no judicial oversight."
The advocacy groups also made a request to deJongh.
"We would like the governor to find a successor who will be more willing to truly balance the immediate safety concerns of victims, witnesses and the community, and the constitutional protection for defendants," they wrote.
Kendall said Wednesday morning that he wouldn't comment on his reasons for retirement, saying they "were in a press release."
The judge concluded his accomplishments: "Being named the www.demmansay.com inaugural Man of the Year/Walk of Fame inductee."
The governor will name a replacement for Kendall on the bench, according to Government House spokesman Jean Greaux Jr.
"The governor is aware there is a vacancy coming up, and he will take the appropriate steps in nominating a replacement," Greaux said.
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