Home News Local news New Era of V.I. Justice Begins as Senate Approves Supreme Court Nominees

New Era of V.I. Justice Begins as Senate Approves Supreme Court Nominees

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Oct. 27, 2006 — At the end of Friday's full legislative session, senators unanimously voted to confirm judges Maria M. Cabret, Rhys S. Hodge and Ive A Swan to the V.I. Supreme Court — despite numerous attempts made earlier in the meeting to stall the vote on the nominations.
Motions began flying across the Senate floor immediately after the session, which began as a Committee of the Whole hearing, was called to order. While Sen. Usie R. Richards advocated that the nominees be approved, Sen. Ronald E. Russell moved to send them back to the Rules and Judiciary Committee, which is charged with questioning, interviewing and investigated nominees to various government boards, commissions and other agencies.
Over the past few days, Russell, along with Senate President Lorraine L. Berry, has been protesting against the session, which was recently called by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull. While Berry has questioned the urgency of the nominations (given the fact that a local Supreme Court has not yet been established), Russell has said that Turnbull's decision presents "a conflict of interest" and attempts to "politicize the judiciary branch."
"I have an objection to the governor being able to call us into a special session to consider these nominations," he said during Friday's meeting. "He is violating the rules of the Legislature, and I would like to put that on the record."
However, Russell's motion was lost in a 7-7 vote, with Sens. Craig Barshinger, Berry, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill, Neville James, and Russell voting in favor; and Sens. Roosevelt C. David, Liston Davis, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Norman Jn Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone, Usie R. Richards and Celestino A. White Sr. voting against the motion.
Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson abstained.
"The Legislature has now become an agency of the executive branch," Berry said after the vote was taken. She added that Friday's session was the "first time in V.I. history" that nominees were considered during a Committee of the Whole hearing instead going through a Rules Committee process.
"While we hold all the nominees here today in high esteem I don't believe that a special session was necessary, since Sen. Russell [the Rules Committee chair] has indicated that he has already scheduled meetings to consider all the nominations. This is something that has never happened before, and there must be a reason why the governor wants to have this heard today," Berry said.
Berry suggested that Turnbull would want to have the opportunity to appoint the judges who will be filling the spots left vacant by Cabret, Hodge and Swan at the Superior Court.
While senators subsequently spent several hours discussing Turnbull's call to act on the nominations, they did, around 1 p.m., give the nominees a chance to sound off on several issues pertaining to the Supreme Court and its role within the community. Senators also questioned whether the judges, if confirmed, would rule against the Legislature in a pending lawsuit that challenges the Senate's decision to establish the court on St. Croix.
While Hodge said that he has already recused himself from the case, Cabret explained that the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, and not the Supreme Court, would "mostly likely have the last word" on the matter.
Swan added that if the case does come before him, he will "research the law and will treat it like any other case."
"And the fact that I was nominated by Gov. Turnbull will not be considered for any iota, modicum or scintilla of time," he said.
At recent Senate hearings, Russell has asserted that the judges' nominations should not be acted upon until the suit — which was filed by Turnbull — is settled.
However, in a recent letter to Berry, Turnbull said senators should not take the court case into consideration when dealing with the nominees.
Hodge agreed, and said during Friday's meeting that senators should focus on moving the court forward. "This is one of the most historic days for the territory," he said. "It's as historical as the day that the Virgin Islands obtained the right to elect a governor. The Supreme Court is such an important aspect of the political development of the territory, and it should have been done as soon as the court was authorized. Right now, it doesn't matter where it goes, just as long as the process is started."
Hodge said that the Supreme Court would function as the appellate court for the territory, and that its justices would continue to "help out" at the Superior Court until they are sworn in.
He also said that the law requires the justices to "get together" within 30 days of being sworn into office to establish rules and regulations for the court. A clerk's office should be established within 60 days, he added. "I assume the judges will continue to use the offices they have now to deal with matters until we get a building," Hodge said. "But I have advised the governor that on Jan. 7, 2007, the court would be ready to assume jurisdiction."
After showering the nominees with glowing remarks and accolades, senators unanimously voted to confirm Cabret, Hodge and Swan to the Supreme Court.
"It is unfortunate that the session happened today and that the three of you were sort of caught in the fight between the legislative and executive branch," Hill said. "But every senator here today finds you eminently qualified — your records are clear, and you bring your vast knowledge, experience and patience to the position. That is without question."
All senators were present during Friday's session.
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