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Lawyers Make Their Cases for Location of Supreme Court

Dec. 13, 2006 — No decision was made Wednesday on a lawsuit that will ultimately determine where a local Supreme Court will be established. Instead, after hearing arguments presented by attorneys involved in the case, V.I. Superior Court Judge Leon Kendall said he would "take the matter under consideration" but not make a final ruling for almost two more months.
The case, filed in July by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, asks the court to declare unconstitutional the Senate's decision to place the court on St. Croix.
The suit has been languishing in Superior Court for months, and has so far been stymied by a flurry of motions filed by attorneys representing Turnbull and the Legislature, as well as Sen. Ronald E. Russell, who has fought to have the case removed to District Court.
Motions filed by both Russell and the Legislature's attorneys have thus far been denied, including a recent motion to dismiss the case, which claimed that: a) Turnbull "lacks standing" to sue the Legislature, b) that no "case or controversy" exists between the two parties and c) that the Legislature is "immune from suit."
The motion also states that Turnbull "has not suffered any injury" from the Legislature's decision to place the court on St. Croix. Turnbull, however, has alleged that by passing a bill to put the court on St. Croix, the Senate has "infringed upon his duty" to enforce the territory's laws.
One of Kendall's recent rulings upheld Turnbull's argument, which was also discussed during Wednesday's hearing by Assistant Attorney General Carol Thomas-Jacobs, representing the government.
Thomas-Jacobs said that by passing an amendment to establish the Supreme Court on St. Croix, the Senate violated certain sections of the Organic Act, which name Charlotte Amalie as the "seat of government" and authorizes the governor to enforce both local laws and federal laws applicable to the territory.
She added that the designated capital should serve as a base of operations for all primary offices set up by the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
Thomas-Jacobs also said that a new provision included in amendments (attached to the Organic Act in 1984) authorizes the Legislature to create "lower and appellate courts," but does not stipulate that those entities should be constructed "outside the capital of Charlotte Amalie."
"If Congress had meant it that way, they would have put that in the Organic Act," she said. "We have to look at the plain language here."
Attorney Douglas Brady, representing the Legislature, used the government's argument to bolster his own. "We do have to look at the language," he said. "And nowhere in the Revised Organic Act is it mentioned that new courts created by the Legislature should be established in Charlotte Amalie."
Brady added that instead of using the government's interpretation of the law, the court "must choose the interpretation that preserves the constitutionality" of provisions laid out in the Organic Act.
"We can't infer restrictions that don't appear in the plain language of the law," he said.
Brady also argued that Congress, by passing amendments to the Revised Organic Act in 1984, sought to give the territory more autonomy by allowing the Legislature to set up local appellate courts.
"But what the governor is now saying, through this suit, is that we're beholden to the federal government to determine where our courts will be located," he said. "The governor is saying, 'Hold on, we're not really that free after all, we don't really have that authority, and the progress we've made over the past half a century has all been an illusion.'"
He added that deciding where to put the court is not a legal issue. "This is our decision," Brady said. "It is a legislative decision, not a judicial decision. A new Legislature is coming in. If they decide that they don't want to place the court on St. Croix, let them pass an amendment– the court has already been moved once before."
Thomas-Jacobs rebutted Brady's arguments, telling Kendall that the court should uphold Turnbull's position as the "champion of the law" and rule against placing the Supreme Court on St. Croix.
"We're not asking the court to interpret the Legislature's actions," she said. "What we're interpreting here is what the Organic Act says, and the fact is the Senate has clearly violated Sec. 2(b) of the act, which designates Charlotte Amalie as the capital and seat of government."
Kendall, who called Wednesday's hearing in order to hear the arguments laid out in briefs filed by both attorneys, said he would take the "matter under consideration" and would make a ruling after post-argument briefs have been filed.
Brady has until Jan. 15 to file a brief on behalf of the Legislature. Thomas-Jacobs was given an additional 10 days to file a response.
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