Attorney Jomo Meade, a long-time St. Croix attorney with years of trial experience, sailed through his nomination hearing before the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee and is likely to become the next V.I. Superior Court judge.
The committee also gave a unanimous thumbs-up to the renomination of Judge Harold Willocks for a second six-year term on the Superior Court bench.
Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly honed in on both nominees’ positions on the dangers of marijuana and their view of its legalization. Rivera-O’Reilly has historically been a staunch opponent of liberalizing marijuana laws.
O’Reilly asked Meade directly if he is for legalization of marijuana for recreational use. The Source published an editorial that morning advocating legalization (See: Legalize It Now! (But Do It Right) in Related Links below)
"I don’t think it is appropriate for me to answer that question and I won’t," Mead said.
O’Reilly said Meade’s answer gave her "reason to pause,"and asked again.
"I have no opinion on that and I won’t answer that. If you are asking me if as a judge, someone who is caught with marijuana should spend umpteen years in jail I don’t agree with that," Meade said.
As O’Reilly pressed him further, Meade said that before he could answer, he "would have to see a study," on the local impact.
"I have heard of studies saying it has no adverse impact on the health of individuals using it. But I have not seen a study in the Virgin Islands," and he would want to see more data before taking a position.
Sen. Novelle Francis asked what he would do if the Legislature were to legalize recreational use.
"If this body legalizes it I would enforce the law," he said.
Sen. Jean Forde said he was "a little disappointed" Meade declined to answer the question more clearly.
Sen. Tregenza Roach said he agreed with Meade and that if the Legislature wants to legalize it it should pass a law to do so, or put it on the ballot for a referendum.
"I think it is unfair to repeatedly ask you the same question," Roach said, adding that Meade
saying he will enforce the law as passed by the Legislature is "appropriate."
Asked what he would change to improve justice in the territory, Meade singled out mandatory minimums, saying judges should not have their hands tied to prevent them from considering the unique circumstances of a case.
"Some of these statutes with mandatory minimum sentences … need to be eliminated,"Meade said.
Other "statutes need to be amended because they are overly harsh," he said.
Later, O’Reilly asked Willocks about a 2012 article in another paper where he lamented the increase in violence in the territory.
"You went on to connect the access to marijuana to the fate that many young men face as they come into your courtroom. Can you add some color to that discussion for us?" O’Reilly said.
"I think what I was referring to was the increase in violence. … I wasn’t necessarily referring to the use of marijuana but rather to the sale of marijuana. Of course both to some degree come hand in hand. .. from memory, that was being said, because a lot of cases, in for example an assault, there is also a charge of sale of marijuana, That was the context," Willocks said.
O’Reilly pressed further, asking Willocks if in his "experience as public defender, and now as judge is there any annex, any connection between marijuana and mental illness or individuals coming before you charged with a crime?"
"I can’t say if it is marijuana but I know there is a dual diagnosis where someone is diagnosed with a mental condition and also a drug dependency … a substance abuse. My experience has shown, I am not singling out marijuana, but certain drugs eventually cause a mental condition … and years ago there was no place that would deal with those with a dual diagnosis. So there is some correlation with substance abuse. I can’t recall if marijuana is one that develops into a mental illness," Willocks said.
Meade is a St. Croix Central High graduate who attended the College of the Virgin Islands, and later received his law degree from Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshal School of Law.
He served as a clerk to Judge Raymond Finch in the Territorial Court of the Virgin Islands. Since then he has worked in private practice and in 1993 established his own private practice. He has tried more than 50 criminal jury cases and more than 100 bench criminal and civil trials.
Willocks, author of the seminal Virgin Islands history "The Umbilical Cord," served as chief public defender in the Virgin Islands from 1992 to 2009, when he was appointed to his current judgeship, and was a public defender in that office prior to that. He was born on St. Croix and graduated from St. Croix Central High. He went to Morgan State and received his law degree from Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C. After returning to the Virgin Islands he worked as an assistant attorney general for about a year, where he handled civil, criminal and juvenile cases, before joining the Office of the Public Defender.
Both nominees were approved and sent on for a final vote before the full Legislature. Voting yes were: O’Reilly, Forde, Francis, Sens. Neville James and Kenneth Gittens. Sen. Tregenza Roach attended but is not a member of the committee. Sens. Justin Harrigan and Janette Millin Young were absent.