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Undercurrents: New Chief Judge Reaches Out from District Court

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.District Court Chief Judge Wilma Lewis

One month into the role, the new chief judge of the District Court is already making changes. But don’t expect a wholesale transformation. As Wilma Lewis described it last week in an interview with the Source, she will be building on a solid foundation, and maybe cracking the windows open a little wider.

District Court judges in the Virgin Islands are appointed by the President to serve 10-year terms. The office of chief judge alternates between island districts every seven years, and in August, it automatically moved from St. Thomas-St. John where Judge Curtis Gomez had served since his appointment to the bench, to St. Croix where Lewis has been serving since November 2011.

Besides hearing and discharging cases like all judges, the chief judge is charged with overseeing the administration of the court, setting and implementing policy and handling staffing matters. Lewis said she met a court that has been operating smoothly for many years.

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“It has been functioning well and effectively under many leaders,” she said. But as with any entity, “there is always room for improvement” because when there’s no change, “that’s when an organization becomes stagnant.”

The mission of District Court is to dispense justice in an impartial, cost-effective, timely and accessible manner, Lewis said, so she first looked at the internal processes and met with court staff.

“I think there should be an external focus as well,” she said.

Hers is a three-pronged approach – to lawyers, to other judges and to the general public.

She’s started with the Virgin Islands Bar Association. Early in September, she met with the leadership and told them she wants to have frequent interactions with the bar.

“They were receptive, much to my delight,” she said. Along with attorney Glenda Lake, the clerk of the court, she plans to meet with the officers of the bar quarterly.

There already are quarterly brown bag sessions with members of the Bar. Of course there is no discussion of individual cases, but there is talk about administrative matters.

The court sets the agenda for each of those sessions, and in the past, Lewis said, it was “court-driven.” Now Lewis is inviting suggestions for topics from the Bar.

In her first brown bag meeting, in fact, eight of the 10 items came from the legal community. Attorneys wanted more guidance on such matters as the protocol for bringing electronics into the court room, how to file motions electronically when a case is under seal, and how they can be assured of notice when a decision is made. There were also questions about participation in CJA (Criminal Justice Act) cases representing indigent clients.

Lewis is still considering how best to implement outreach to other segments of the community.

“I want to touch bases with the judges in the local courts,” she said. Currently, there is no formal interaction among the jurists in Superior or the V.I. Supreme Court and those in District Court, but Lewis thinks increased communication could lead to enhancing the overall effectiveness of the territory’s legal system.

Going beyond the legal community, she’s also anxious to bring a better understanding of the court to the general public.

She said she will continue the Kids and the Court program that was established under Gomez, bringing young students to court to watch a trial.

“I’m looking to enhance what we do,” she said. She’d like to bring older students to the court for tours and to meet with judges, marshals, staff in the clerk’s office, the probation office and court reporters, so they can get a fundamental understanding of how the court works.

“The idea is to start that on St. Croix.” There may be other ways to educate students too.

Meanwhile, she’s looking for opportunities to reach the adult population, including the possibility of District Court judges speaking at public forums.

As the U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C.,“I was often at community meetings,” she said, and she often found herself explaining things about the law and about the functions of her office. “There were lots of things that we thought the world knew, and they didn’t … (There were) things not necessarily universally known by the people we served.” Conversely, she said she also learned from the meetings as people were able to air their concerns.

Lewis is the first woman to serve as chief judge of the District Court in the Virgin Islands.

A native of St. Thomas, she said she knew early on that she wanted to go into law. She attended All Saints Cathedral School from kindergarten through graduation from high school, in 1974.

When classes were over in the afternoon, she’d walk a couple blocks down Garden Street to what is now the downtown Post Office where both her parents worked – her father with the postal service and her mother with Customs, which was then housed in the same building.

Sometimes while she waited for them to finish work, she’d walk around the corner to what was then the Territorial Court building where she was assured a welcome by Judge Eileen Petersen, her godmother. She watched many a court proceeding and by the time she finished high school, she had decided to become an attorney.

Lewis went to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, fearing that her schooling on a small island might not have prepared her for the competition she’d meet. She was pleasantly surprised.

“I found that my All Saints education was not only as good as but in some instances better” than what her new classmates brought to college. She graduated from Swarthmore in 1978, and received her law degree from Harvard Law School in 1981.

She spent much of her career in private practice stateside, and then took a job with the U.S. Interior Department, in the Solicitor’s Office. She held several positions at Interior, most notably serving as the Inspector General for Interior for the Virgin Islands from 1995 to 1998.

In that capacity, she oversaw federal audits of V.I. government departments and agencies. The audits were aimed at improving operations, reducing waste, and, often, uncovering mismanagement and fraud.

Known first as the Comptroller’s Office, and later as Inspector General, the office served as a watchdog for half a century. When the local government created its own Virgin Islands Inspector General in the late 1980s, the territory found there was plenty of work for two government auditors. Earlier this year, Interior announced it was closing its V.I. office, effective Sept. 30 – Monday – though it would continue to monitor things from Washington.

Asked to comment on the closure, Lewis paused to consider her answer and seemed to choose her words carefully.

“I think the office here provided a great service in the Virgin Islands, so my hope is that the service that the Inspector General’s Office provided here can be picked up by the local office,” she said.

When Lewis left Interior, it was to become head of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., a post she held from 1998 to 2001.

In her heart, she said she always knew she would return to the Virgin Islands. Two years ago when she told her college roommate that she was moving back home, her friend asked if she was going to be a judge.

Although Lewis says she didn’t remember the incident, her friend reminded her of a long-ago visit to St. Thomas when Lewis pointed out the courthouse and predicted that one day she’d be a judge there.

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A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.District Court Chief Judge Wilma Lewis One month into the role, the new chief judge of the District Court is already making changes. But don’t expect a wholesale transformation. As Wilma Lewis described it last week in an interview with the Source, she will be building on a solid foundation, and maybe cracking the windows open a little wider. District Court judges in the Virgin Islands are appointed by the President to serve 10-year terms. The office of chief judge alternates between island districts every seven years, and in August, it automatically moved from St. Thomas-St. John where Judge Curtis Gomez had served since his appointment to the bench, to St. Croix where Lewis has been serving since November 2011. Besides hearing and discharging cases like all judges, the chief judge is charged with overseeing the administration of the court, setting and implementing policy and handling staffing matters. Lewis said she met a court that has been operating smoothly for many years. “It has been functioning well and effectively under many leaders,” she said. But as with any entity, “there is always room for improvement” because when there’s no change, “that’s when an organization becomes stagnant.” The mission of District Court is to dispense justice in an impartial, cost-effective, timely and accessible manner, Lewis said, so she first looked at the internal processes and met with court staff. “I think there should be an external focus as well,” she said. Hers is a three-pronged approach – to lawyers, to other judges and to the general public. She’s started with the Virgin Islands Bar Association. Early in September, she met with the leadership and told them she wants to have frequent interactions with the bar. “They were receptive, much to my delight,” she said. Along with attorney Glenda Lake, the clerk of the court, she plans to meet with the officers of the bar quarterly. There already are quarterly brown bag sessions with members of the Bar. Of course there is no discussion of individual cases, but there is talk about administrative matters. The court sets the agenda for each of those sessions, and in the past, Lewis said, it was “court-driven.” Now Lewis is inviting suggestions for topics from the Bar. In her first brown bag meeting, in fact, eight of the 10 items came from the legal community. Attorneys wanted more guidance on such matters as the protocol for bringing electronics into the court room, how to file motions electronically when a case is under seal, and how they can be assured of notice when a decision is made. There were also questions about participation in CJA (Criminal Justice Act) cases representing indigent clients. Lewis is still considering how best to implement outreach to other segments of the community. “I want to touch bases with the judges in the local courts,” she said. Currently, there is no formal interaction among the jurists in Superior or the V.I. Supreme Court and those in District Court, but Lewis thinks increased communication could lead to enhancing the overall effectiveness of the territory’s legal system. Going beyond the legal community, she’s also anxious to bring a better understanding of the court to the general public. She said she will continue the Kids and the Court program that was established under Gomez, bringing young students to court to watch a trial. “I’m looking to enhance what we do,” she said. She’d like to bring older students to the court for tours and to meet with judges, marshals, staff in the clerk’s office, the probation office and court reporters, so they can get a fundamental understanding of how the court works. “The idea is to start that on St. Croix.” There may be other ways to educate students too. Meanwhile, she’s looking for opportunities to reach the adult population, including the possibility of District Court judges speaking at public forums. As the U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C.,“I was often at community meetings,” she said, and she often found herself explaining things about the law and about the functions of her office. “There were lots of things that we thought the world knew, and they didn’t … (There were) things not necessarily universally known by the people we served.” Conversely, she said she also learned from the meetings as people were able to air their concerns. Lewis is the first woman to serve as chief judge of the District Court in the Virgin Islands. A native of St. Thomas, she said she knew early on that she wanted to go into law. She attended All Saints Cathedral School from kindergarten through graduation from high school, in 1974. When classes were over in the afternoon, she’d walk a couple blocks down Garden Street to what is now the downtown Post Office where both her parents worked – her father with the postal service and her mother with Customs, which was then housed in the same building. Sometimes while she waited for them to finish work, she’d walk around the corner to what was then the Territorial Court building where she was assured a welcome by Judge Eileen Petersen, her godmother. She watched many a court proceeding and by the time she finished high school, she had decided to become an attorney. Lewis went to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, fearing that her schooling on a small island might not have prepared her for the competition she’d meet. She was pleasantly surprised. “I found that my All Saints education was not only as good as but in some instances better” than what her new classmates brought to college. She graduated from Swarthmore in 1978, and received her law degree from Harvard Law School in 1981. She spent much of her career in private practice stateside, and then took a job with the U.S. Interior Department, in the Solicitor’s Office. She held several positions at Interior, most notably serving as the Inspector General for Interior for the Virgin Islands from 1995 to 1998. In that capacity, she oversaw federal audits of V.I. government departments and agencies. The audits were aimed at improving operations, reducing waste, and, often, uncovering mismanagement and fraud. Known first as the Comptroller’s Office, and later as Inspector General, the office served as a watchdog for half a century. When the local government created its own Virgin Islands Inspector General in the late 1980s, the territory found there was plenty of work for two government auditors. Earlier this year, Interior announced it was closing its V.I. office, effective Sept. 30 – Monday - though it would continue to monitor things from Washington. Asked to comment on the closure, Lewis paused to consider her answer and seemed to choose her words carefully. “I think the office here provided a great service in the Virgin Islands, so my hope is that the service that the Inspector General’s Office provided here can be picked up by the local office,” she said. When Lewis left Interior, it was to become head of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., a post she held from 1998 to 2001. In her heart, she said she always knew she would return to the Virgin Islands. Two years ago when she told her college roommate that she was moving back home, her friend asked if she was going to be a judge. Although Lewis says she didn’t remember the incident, her friend reminded her of a long-ago visit to St. Thomas when Lewis pointed out the courthouse and predicted that one day she’d be a judge there.