Oct. 30, 2004 Gov. Charles Turnbull on Friday night signed into law a bill establishing the Supreme Court of the Virgin Islands, despite several "flaws" he found in the legislation's language.
"This bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation because of its impact on our judicial system and the people of the Virgin Islands," Turnbull said in a letter to Senate President David Jones. "Therefore, it must be carefully crafted to reflect a well-written, concise and thorough plan for the establishment and operation for a Supreme Court." He added that not fixing the problems he sees with the current wording would result in "chaos" in the judicial system.
The bill, sponsored primarily by Sen. Carlton Dowe, creates the V.I. Supreme Court to hear appeals of Territorial Court cases. A chief justice and two associate judges appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature will sit on the Supreme Court.
Currently, the Virgin Islands is the only U.S. jurisdiction without its own Supreme Court. The territory has had the power to create a Supreme Court since 1984 when Congress amended the Revised Organic Act. However, that right was never taken advantage of until now.
Turnbull commended the efforts of senators who worked hard to create the legislation. Saying "today is a great and historic day for the territory," Turnbull enacted the bill, but warned the Senate, "We must now move hastily to correct the deficiencies."
The following is a list of changes Turnbull requested:
– The bill should stipulate that all justices sitting on the court be members of the V.I. Bar Association. Turnbull said the way the bill is makes it possible for an attorney who is not a member of the V.I. Bar to be qualified.
– The bill should allow retired Territorial Court judges to sit on the court temporarily in the event of vacancies. In its current form, the bill allows federal judges to serve temporarily while precluding Territorial Court judges.
– The bill should limit the powers of the chief justice of the Supreme Court. As written, the legislation gives the chief justice "overwhelming and over-reaching" powers over the functions of the Territorial Court. Turnbull said the two courts should operate independently.
– The bill should also clarify when the District Court will cease its appellate jurisdiction. The bill currently repeals the jurisdiction of the District Court on the day the bill is enacted. Turnbull said this is problematic because there will be no court in place yet to hear appeals in the interim, nor a mechanism for attorneys seeking admission to the V.I. Bar to do so.
– The bill needs to clarify language on the government's authority to appeal issues in criminal cases. Currently the government may conduct an "interlocutory review" before or during a trial. Turnbill said the bill's language, "granting a new trial after verdict or judgment," seems to extend that power to after verdicts are reached.
– How the three justices will choose among themselves who will be chief justice needs clarification. Turnbull said the process outlined in the bill "flies in the face of common sense," because once one of the three has served and is therefore ineligible to succeed him/herself there are too many possibilities for deadlocked votes which might result in no one being chosen.
"I call upon the Legislature to move expeditiously to correct these flaws or we will have chaos in our judicial system," Turnbull said. "While we expect some problems to occur during the initial phase of the establishment of the Supreme Court, the bill to create it should not contain such major flaws that may defeat the purpose."
Turnbull said if the Legislature does not act promptly, he will have to call a special session to address the matter.
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