All three V.I. Supreme Court justices’ terms have expired and Gov. Kenneth Mapp has yet to renominate any of them for another term or to nominate other judges for the Legislature to consider for the posts, leading some readers to ask the Source if there is a crisis on the court.
The Senate special ordered and passed legislation changing V.I. law to allow justices to serve up to 180 days after their terms have expired and the Supreme Court sets its own schedule, so there is no immediate crisis.
On Oct. 27, 2006, the Legislature voted unanimously to confirm Judges Maria M. Cabret, Rhys S. Hodge and Ive A. Swan to be the first justices on the brand new V.I. Supreme Court. At the time, there was a minor controversy over then-Gov. Charles Turnbull calling a special session for the nominations just days before a new governor was elected, when the court itself had yet to be established. There was also an ongoing dispute at the time over the legality of placing the court on St. Croix. (See Related Links below)
The V.I. law creating the court established 10-year terms, so all three justices’ terms expired 10 years later, on Oct. 27, of this year.
During a special session Oct. 21, the Legislature approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Neville James to allow the sitting justices to continue to serve up to 180 days after their terms expired. The uncontroversial bill was used as a vehicle for an array of unrelated legislative measures, from free PhD tuition for veterans at the University of the Virgin Islands to a residential drug and alcohol program.
The V.I. governor nominates Supreme Court justices. However, the measure apparently initiated in the Legislature rather than from Gov. Kenneth Mapp.
Senate President Neville James said the bill came about "when my chief legal counsel informed me on Oct. 11 that the legislation establishing our Supreme Court did not allow for sitting Supreme Court justices to preside on the bench after their respective terms expire, unlike that of the local magistrates and Superior Court judges."
"Nothing was created for the justices that isn’t already in place for the lower courts," James said.
Senate Majority Leader Sammuel Sanes said the governor has oversight of renominations.
"I would have preferred action before passing of new legislation but it’s up to the governor to decide the course of action," Sanes said.
"We acted with the 180 additional days so as not to make the system stagnate," he said.
Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly also said that lower courts allow judges to continue to serve but the Supreme Court’s enacting statutes did not.
She said, "Unlike other statutes governing the appointment and service of judges and magistrates, the legislation establishing the Supreme Court failed to address what happens when the term of a justice expires. According to the current statute, the Supreme Court justices are unable to continue in their service until a replacement is appointed and confirmed. This could create a problem with a decision or a tie."
Asked whether the existing judges should be renominated, Rivera-O’Reilly said the selection is up to the governor and she was not sure what Mapp’s plans were.
"I believe that all three sitting justices have done an outstanding job and I would support their renomination. I would, however, vet their renomination fairly as I would any other nomination," she said.
Sen. Positive Nelson went a little further, saying Mapp should have renominated the justices or nominated new ones before now.
"The rationale for passing such legislation was that, as of the 25th, they would have had to evacuate the bench. This should have not been necessary. The governor could and should either renominate those or nominate others. It is dereliction of duty on the governor’s behalf," Nelson said.
Emails to the Mapp administration for comment were answered but the administration had not provided any comment as of 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.