V.I. Supreme Court bill passes Legislation now goes before the U.S. Senate

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ST. THOMAS - The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill to give greater autonomy to the V.I. Supreme Court.

V.I. Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen introduced the bill in July, which mandates that any challenges to V.I. Supreme Court decisions go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. House passed the bill Wednesday, and the legislation now goes before the U.S. Senate.

The bill arose after a recent report by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which recommended that the territory's appellate court have the same relationship to the U.S. Supreme Court as the highest courts in all 50 states.

On the mainland, decisions made by the State Court can be appealed to the state's Supreme Court. The nation's Circuit Courts are the appellate courts of the federal District Court system. Appeals that come out of the state Supreme Courts and the Circuit Courts then go to the U.S. Supreme Court for a final review - but only if the highest court accepts the case.

The Organic Act mandates that five years after the establishment of an appellate court in the Virgin Islands, the 3rd Circuit must conduct a review and submit the findings to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the House Committee on Natural Resources.

The V.I. Supreme Court had its fifth anniversary on Jan. 29, but the review process began in December. A special council that included Circuit Court judges spent months conducting research, reviewing all of the V.I. Supreme Court opinions, considering the court's rules and internal operating procedures, meeting and interviewing the justices themselves and interviewing other judges, the governor, members of the V.I. Legislature, the delegate to Congress, other public officials and members of the V.I. Bar Association.

When they finished, the council unanimously found that in the first five years of its operation, the V.I. Supreme Court has "developed sufficient institutional traditions to justify direct review by the Supreme Court of the United States."

The council's report recommends that Congress pass legislation to mandate that appeals to the V.I. Supreme Court go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now that the House has approved the bill, it will go to the Senate for approval. If it passes the Senate, it will go to the president for his signature.

If Congress agrees to have the territory's appellate decisions reviewed directly by the nation's highest court, it will give the V.I. Supreme Court rulings more weight because the U.S. Supreme Court is selective about the cases it chooses to hear.

"All Virgin Islands will look back upon this time with great pride and gratitude for the way in which they laid the foundation for appellate jurisprudence in the territory that is second to none," Christensen said.

- Contact Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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