April 15, 2001 – In an informal survey, several members of the local legal community expressed misgivings about the move toward an elected attorney general.
The change from an appointed to an elected head of the Justice Department will require an amendment to the Organic Act, and Monday the Legislature voted 13 to 2 to petition Congress to make that amendment.
"I think Congress will do anything we want them to," said attorney Derek Hodge, a former lieutenant governor. He is not in favor of the change.
Attorney Leonard Francis said, "I do believe it's a foolish bill," and agreed with Hodge that the territory is likely to get what it asks for because "Congress has taken a laissez-faire attitude" toward the Virgin Islands.
"I've never felt comfortable with elected judges or attorneys general," attorney Treston Moore said. "The whims and caprices of a population affect the judgment of the individual."
Attorney Alan Smith, who was acting attorney general twice, also believes the idea is a bad one largely because it will make the office too political.
However, the reaction was not unanimous, even in the small sampling. Attorney Patricia Welcome said "the attorney general should be elected. I think it'd be more impartial to have the voters decide."
The question of politics is central to the issue. Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, who sponsored the bill, argued that it would depoliticize the office, an argument echoed by many of his colleagues in debate in committee and on the floor. He also pointed to the 1998 non-binding referendum in which voters supported an elected attorney general.
"I think that was a knee-jerk reaction to the Brady-Bryan issue," Hodge said Friday, referring to the decision by former Attorney General Julio Brady not to prosecute Sen. Adelbert Bryan in connection with the killing of his son.
Francis made a similar point but included the current attorney general, Iver Stridiron.
"I have the greatest respect for Mr. Brady and for Mr. Stridiron," he said, but added that much of the community perceives both men as overly influenced by the governors who appointed them.
Now, he said, the Legislature wants to "throw the baby out with the bath water."
There has been no strong criticism of the system of appointing judges, although the same arguments could be made about de-politicizing the bench as senators made concerning the Attorney General's Office. "If we're going to do it, include the judges," Francis said.
He put the responsibility for protecting against undue political influence on the Legislature, which he said has not been doing all it should in exercising its authority of advise and consent in confirming gubernatorial nominees.
To put the position to a vote, "makes the Attorney General's Office a political office more so than it is now," Francis said. "Who will win? The person with the most money? The person with the most TV spots?"
It is understood that people want integrity and leadership in an attorney general, Francis said, but "are you going to get that in an election . . . where people smear each other?"
To run a campaign costs money, Hodge said. Is it reasonable to believe that the winner won't be beholden to his contributors?
Smith added a practical consideration. The attorney general represents the government. If he does not answer to the governor in that role, to whom does he answer? And what happens when an assistant attorney general and the sitting attorney general are campaigning against each other?
Francis said the current system "is based on the best system in the world which is the Unites States system."
Barring a veto, however, the question appears to be decided.
Donastorg said this week that if and when the bill becomes law, it will be up to Congresswoman Donna Christian Christensen to introduce legislation calling for the change to the Organic Act and incumbent on Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole, the Legislature's liaison with Congress, to push it, under the system the Senate majority has put in place.
"Let's see how effective it is," Donastorg said.
Cole said the Legislature will "use a lobby group" to back the bill but it really will be up to Christensen to push it.