From Montserrat, where he was born in 1943, Alfred Greenaway came to St. Croix, as so many have, hoping for work and a better life, and to some extent found it.
Bonded to his employer, young Greenaway first worked as a deckhand dredging the shipping lanes for Hess Oil; then as a mason, a landscaper, or “Whatever job I could find,” he would later say.
An opportunity arose to get vocational training as an electrician and Greenaway, with a seventh-grade education, jumped at the chance. While other students dropped out, he attended night school for two years until his program was cut off due to student attrition. Even so, he rose on his skills to a class A electrician, and his salary rose, too: roughly from $8 to $15 an hour according to income tax records. This was only 20 percent shy of St. Croix’s median household income, although still at the federal poverty level for his family of five children.
No health insurance, no work, no hearing
All of this was told in a recorded deposition Greenaway gave after losing his left index finger on a job indirectly contracted by the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority in 2001. Unable to practice his trade further, he subsisted on odd jobs, family support and about $13,000 a year in disability.
Many Crucian workers share Greenaway’s story in more ways than one. Their services to the island’s major industries are often performed through subcontractors, on jobs lasting a few months, often without health insurance. And if they are hurt, it can take five, 10, 20 years or longer for their cases to be heard.
Now in his upper 70s, Greenaway’s case was recently scheduled for trial after a 20-year wait.
Another Crucian who began his career as a bonded laborer, Arnold Anthony, died before his claim of exposure to asbestos dust could get a trial date, according to a court document. Anthony’s repeated requests for a scheduling order were dismissed, even as the court acknowledged the case was “stuck in interminable limbo.” He waited 17 years before his heart finally was no longer able to compensate for his failing lungs.
More than 2,000 other Crucians are still waiting 25 years after their case, claiming damages from exposure to industrial silicon dust, was first filed.
What can be done?
A bill recently signed into law by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. could help older people access the territory’s backlogged court system more quickly by filing a motion for preference.
The bill recommends preference be given to those over 70; or over 65 with an illness such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease likely to shorten their lives; or diagnosed with a terminal illness at any age.
“We have a large population of the aging, the vulnerable and sick, who need to settle their affairs,” said Sen. Janelle Sarauw, who championed the legislation. “I realized we had so many things in probate because the courts weren’t taking things prior to the person dying. I thought, ‘If I can’t solve everything, the least I can do is address the sick and elderly.’”
Requesting a preference has always been possible at the judge’s discretion, but the new bill makes it more specific. If preference is granted, it directs judges to schedule a hearing within six months for an ailing senior or three months for someone with a terminal diagnosis.
“It’s a really great start,” Virgin Islands AARP State Director Troy de Chabert-Schuster said of the legislation. “But I would like to see an amendment to give it more teeth: number one, to guarantee that preference be given, and number two, to drop the age from 70 to 65.”
Sarauw had looked at other states for guidance and found similar bills, notably California, narrowly focused on elder law.
“I knew if it was wide-raging it would not pass,” she said. “You have to appease the palette of people in baby steps.”
But attorneys describe a courts backlog problem far beyond what discretionary preferences can solve.
“We’re at the point right now where the trial court system is not just dysfunctional, it’s nonfunctional. It is not even fulfilling its mission as a third branch of government,” V.I. civil litigator Edward Barry said.
“I don’t fault the individual judges. The problem is so profound and widespread that no single judge can come in and rectify it,” Barry said.
Long-time V.I. attorney Pam Colon says the reasons are many and have changed over time.
Only in 1994 did the territory adopt a simpler mechanism of delegating federal and territorial cases – “except for the appellate division,” Colon said.
“For many years there was an intermediate court with panels made up of superior and district court judges who already had full-time jobs. On top of that, a dissatisfied party could automatically appeal to the third circuit, which was extremely time consuming. You can see how things just got to inertia,” she said.
Then came the 2017 hurricanes and the pandemic after that, bringing jury trials to a standstill.
Today the territory has a Superior Court, eliminating the double appellate court reviews; and an appellate court making its own Virgin Islands common law; “time-consuming for the trial court judge, who has to analyze all the laws and decide what jurisdiction is being used,” Colon explained.
She suggests cases would move more quickly if the V.I. adopted separate criminal and civil divisions.
“We probably do not have enough judges to do that,” she said.
Asked how the larger backlog problem might be solved, Sarauw said it’s up to the judiciary to propose a solution to the Legislature for funding, if needed. A judicial council composed of members of the courts, the attorney general’s office and others was created to troubleshoot issues with the judicial system and recommend solutions, she said.
“It starts with the Supreme Court organizing the court system,” said Colon, who would like to see separate criminal and civil divisions before more judges are hired.
“Once the court decides that, it becomes a budgeting issue and they would need to go to the Legislature to get the money,” she said. “To effectively, restructure. I think you are going to need at least one more judge.”