Rules Committee Sends Supreme Court Renominations to Full Senate

The 31st Legislature’s Committee on Rules and Judiciary voted Monday to send the renominations of the V.I. Supreme Court’s three sitting justices to be considered by the full Senate.

The renominations of the Justices – Maria M. Cabret, Ive A. Swan and Rhys S. Hodge – will be considered by the full Senate on Tuesday.

All three of the justices were nominated for their first 10-year terms on the Supreme Court by former Gov. Charles W. Turnbull when the court was created in 2006. Those terms expired in October, and because Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp had not made any new nominations for Supreme Court justices, the Legislature passed a bill to allow the sitting justices to continue to serve for an additional 180 days.

Mapp subsequently renominated the sitting Justices for an additional term.

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Senators expressed few reservations Monday about keeping Cabret, Hodge and Swan on the Supreme Court bench, and favorable votes on their nominations were unanimous among the five committee members present.

Those members were Sens. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, Novelle Francis Jr., Justin Harrigan Sr., Kenneth Gittens, and Janette Millin Young.

Each of the justices has a long resume in the V.I. judicial system.

Cabret was the second woman and first woman of Hispanic descent to serve as a V.I. Territorial Court judge, and further made history when she was tapped as presiding judge.

Swan served as attorney general of the territory during the administration of Gov. Juan F. Luis, and has been a member of the judiciary since 1993.

Hodge maintained a private practice in the territory for 21 years before being sworn in as a V.I. Superior Court judge in 2000. He is currently the Supreme Court’s chief justice.

“I admire each and every one of you, so it’s going to be tough to question people I respect so highly,” Millin Young said before offering her line of questioning at the vetting hearing.

Other senators had similarly high opinions of the justices.

Rivera-O’Reilly said each of the justices “should be applauded for doing a remarkable job” as the first Supreme Court in Virgin Islands history.

Justices were asked about their temperaments, judicial philosophies and their opinions about issues such as mandatory minimum sentences and the recent administrative unification of the territory’s judicial branch.

The only senator to express hesitation to vote for any of the re-nominations was Rivera-O’Reilly, who had questions about the rhetorical style of Swan, although she said she agreed with the content of many of his responses.

Swan referred to himself as “brutally blunt” during the hearing, at which he said the decision to not grant Supreme Court justices lifetime tenure after an initial 10-year term was “ludicrous,” and called a theoretical change to an elected judiciary, as advanced by Harrigan, “a disaster.”

Rivera-O’Reilly said she had been made “very uncomfortable” by Swan’s response to Harrigan’s question about an elected judiciary, even though she agreed with him in his opposition to such a system. Swan said electing judges would turn them into politicians, making them “beholden to every special interest knocking on their doors.”

Rivera-O’Reilly said she took issue with the implication that senators are swayed by special interests by virtue of the political process or that they are “politicking all the time.” Swan said his response “had nothing to do with senators.”

“I believe you are a funny person; I believe that you are a hardworking person; I believe that you seek the truth not realizing that sometimes you throw daggers at people,” Rivera-O’Reilly said.

She added that she would support Swan’s nomination despite the fact that she felt “he could have expressed some of his responses differently.”

Gov. Mapp has indicated that he will nominate two additional justices to the V.I. Supreme Court in 2017. Current law sets the minimum number of justices who can sit on the bench at three and the maximum at five.

At Monday’s Judiciary Committee hearing, the committee also forwarded to the full Senate the re-nomination of Yvonne Thraen to the V.I. Port Authority Board and the nomination of Angelo Riddick as director of the V.I. Bureau of Information and Technology.

Both nominations proved uncontroversial with the committee and were approved unanimously by the five members present.

Thraen was first nominated to the VIPA board in 2006 and has served in various capacities in the V.I. Government and on boards dating back to the Juan Luis administration.

Riddick, a colonel in the U.S. Army who recently relocated to the territory from Washington D.C., has experience managing and developing information technology applications for the military, including cybersecurity.

The Judiciary Committee also forwarded without debate three previously vetted bills to the full Senate: an act appropriating $300,000 from the Union Arbitration Award and Government Employees Increment Fund to the Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority; an act reallocating $1 million to an emergency project at the Juan F. Luis Hospital from funds previously allocated to the hospital, and an act amending the territory’s International Banking Center Regulatory Act.

A motion to send another previously vetted bill to the full Senate – an act regarding the retirement benefit program for members of the Judiciary – failed for lack of a second. 

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