V.I. Bar Association opposes appointment of Hinds to bench


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ST. THOMAS - In the run-up to Monday's Senate confirmation hearings for four judicial nominees, the V.I. Bar Association is renewing its opposition to the nomination of Denise Hinds to serve as Family Court judge on St. Croix.

The Bar Association's argument, first made public during a Rules and Judiciary Committee hearing on St. Croix on Oct. 22, has two points.

One is a section of the V.I. Code requiring that a Superior Court nominee "must be a member in good standing of the Virgin Islands Bar and shall have been engaged in the active practice of law for not less than five years immediately prior to his nomination, of which not less than three years shall have been in the Virgin Islands."

The Bar Association takes the position that the language in the law is conjunctive, meaning the three-year threshold applies to both bar membership and practice of law, according to an October letter from Association Judiciary Committee Chairman Emile Henderson III.

Despite the fact that Hinds has been an Assistant U.S. Attorney since 1995, she was only admitted as a full member to the V.I. Bar in May 2011, the letter states.

"There can be no dispute that Attorney Hinds-Roach could not have been in the active practice of law in the Virgin Islands for the last three years since she was not a member of the Virgin Islands Bar until May 11, 2011," Henderson wrote.

The second point of the Bar Association's argument against Hinds is a section of the law requiring that nominees to the Family Court "must be trained and knowledgeable in the practice of family law and have the temperament and interest compatible with the functions of the office."

Henderson argues that Hinds does not meet this requirement because her resumé lacks "any reference to knowledge and training in family law."

Henderson's letter states that "family law cases" would include cases involving "divorces, guardianships, involuntary commitments, Persons In Need of Supervision ('PINS'), child abuse and neglect, adoptions, child custody, and paternity and child support."

Hinds' resumé mentions experience prosecuting child sexual exploitation, domestic violence and drug cases in the Virgin Islands, as well as experience prosecuting child abuse, domestic violence and homicide cases in Fulton County, Ga.

By way of comparison, the resumé of Debra Smith-Watlington, whose nomination to the St. Thomas Family Court bench the Bar Association supports, mentions experience in the Territorial Public Defender's Office overseeing the administration of "adult and juvenile proceedings," as well as negotiating payment of child support and representing minors in Family Court.

The Bar Association issued a press release Thursday reiterating its support of three other judicial nominees and making a comment about the association's lack of involvement in the process.

"It is important to note that, although the VI Bar Association is customarily invited to participate in the process of vetting judicial nominees, the VIBA was not invited to participate in the process of vetting the current judicial nominees," the release states. "However, the VIBA endeavored to participate in the process by providing feedback on the judicial nominees, which is important for the public and the members of the bar association."

Fallout

None of the association's arguments swayed the Senate Rules Committee, which unanimously passed all four of the governor's nominees on to the full body for confirmation Monday.

Sen. Usie Richards, the committee's chairman, dismissed the Bar Association's argument that it was not invited to testify. He said that as with all meetings of his committee, it was publicly announced and anyone wishing to testify for or against a nominee is free to do so.

Richards also said that the Bar Association sent a representative to the Rules Committee hearing, but by the time he called for any testimony against Hinds, that individual was not in the Senate chambers.

Bar Association President Karin Bentz confirmed that Henderson was at the hearing but said he had to leave before he was able to testify because of a prior commitment.

Richards declined to rehash the argument made at the hearing - "I don't appreciate redundancy," he said - but he said the senators on the committee received their own legal advice, which offered a different interpretation of the three-year threshold required for judicial nominees.

Hinds' supporters have argued that the law Henderson cited should be read as two distinct requirements, one for being a bar member in good standing and one for having practiced law in the territory for at least three years prior to nomination.

Bentz declined to respond to that argument and said she had no personal knowledge of Hinds' professional experience.

"That's the position the committee voted on," she said. "I can't really state my personal opinion."

She said that she typically receives personal invitations on behalf of the Bar Association to testify on matters that directly concern the judiciary or other legal issues and that she would have expected the same from Richards' committee with respect to the judicial nominations.

Hinds said she expects Henderson will be at Monday's confirmation hearing on St. Thomas.

- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email lmattei@dailynews.vi.

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