AROUND THIS TIME of year, as shivering Philadelphians trudge over snow-covered ground, the U.S. Virgin Islands - with white, sandy beaches, turquoise waters and perpetual summer - seem like, well, paradise.
A little-known fact is that federal judges from the Philadelphia area are periodically dispatched there on the government's tab, often during the winter months, to preside over cases.
In fact, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, headquartered here, is scheduled to speak tomorrow at a conference in St. Thomas.
A nice gig if you can get it, huh?
District judges and 3rd Circuit jurists who hear appeals have spent at least 38 working days in the islands over the past two years.
Court officials say that there's nothing unethical about it and that, actually, it may be saving the government money.
Besides, says one judge, there's not exactly time for sipping rum runners by the beach.
When James T. Giles, a former Philadelphia U.S. District chief judge, was first assigned to temporarily preside over cases in the islands, a friend called it a plum assignment and said he'd have a little fun in the sun.
Giles was soon disabused of that notion. "I think I had that idea in my mind for about a day and then it was over," he said. He said that when he wasn't presiding over court business in the islands, he was on the phone making sure he stayed on top of his courtroom business in Philadelphia.
Giles, who was chief district judge here from 1999 to 2006, is one of a number of federal judges here who have gone over the years to fill in at court posts in St. Thomas and St. Croix.
Though not widely known outside legal circles, the islands, which are an incorporated U.S. territory, are part of the 3rd Circuit, which also includes district courts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
Federal law provides that the chief judge of the 3rd Circuit may designate and assign temporarily any district judges of the circuit to other district courts within the circuit. It just happens that the Virgin Islands are nicer than other locales where judges may be temporarily assigned, like Wilmington or Scranton. Appellate judges also sit for one week in the Virgin Islands twice a year. (They also go to Pittsburgh and Newark twice a year.)
The sunny assignment, for better or worse, is not likely to end, because nobody expects the appointment of a new full-time judge in the Virgin Islands anytime soon. Currently, there are 11 vacancies for existing full-time district judgeships in the 3rd Circuit.
Appointing a new district judge - which would be for life - would put taxpayers on the hook for a recurring annual salary that is now $174,000, plus related health and pension benefits. The temporary fill-ins in the Caribbean cost only $21,393 in 2009 and 2010 for district judges and law clerks to handle official business. The cost for the appellate judges' stays was not provided to the Daily News.
Court officials here say district judges in the 3rd Circuit are assigned to the islands because the caseload there is very congested, with a high number of criminal cases going to trial.
There are only two district judges and two magistrates in the district court of the Virgin Islands. One judge is semi-retired, and the chief judge, Curtis Gomez, previously served as the islands' U.S. attorney and must recuse himself from cases in which he represented the U.S.
Critics suggest the practice detracts from judges' ability to manage cases in their courtrooms here. Federal court statistics, however, suggest that the assignments are helping to clear the docket there without jamming up the courts here. From March 31, 2009, to March 31, 2010, the number of pending civil cases on the islands dropped by 25 percent and pending criminal cases rose by less than 1 percent. Meanwhile, pending civil and criminal cases here declined by 6.5 percent and 2 percent, respectively.
Judges are designated for assignment outside their local courtrooms on the basis of their ability to "move cases" on the islands while staying on top of their caseloads in Philadelphia, according to a source familiar with the process but who was not authorized to speak publicly about it.
Toby Slawsky, the chief executive for the 3rd Circuit, said that the "great majority" of work done on cases in the islands, such as status conferences and scheduling, occurs in judges' local chambers and that travel to the islands is limited to "essential court appearances and trials."
She said judges here and in New Jersey are most often tapped for island duties because they are the two largest courts and have the most resources.
Judges working in the islands are able to simultaneously maintain control over their caseloads here only because of a delicate balance in scheduling, Giles said.
"When the jury goes out for a break during a trial in the Virgin Islands, there's a telephone conference call with attorneys to schedule a hearing in Philadelphia," he said, adding with a laugh, "use of the restroom must be quick."
All told, according to a Daily News analysis of court dockets, U.S. District Chief Judge Harvey Bartle III and fellow district judges Juan Sanchez and Timothy Savage conducted court business on 18 working days in 2009 and 2010 in the islands, mostly during the winter. Three appellate judges sat for one week in St. Thomas in May and a week in St. Croix in December last year and a week on each island in the previous year.
Slawsky said she couldn't provide any information on travel costs for the appellate judges but said that in order to "keep costs as low as possible," the appellate jurists don't take staff with them.
She explained that decisions about when judges hold court hearings in the islands depends on their pending caseloads here and the weather. Historically, hurricanes have struck the islands mostly from July to November. There are also 18 official holidays on the islands, which limits when cases are scheduled.
Court officials did not say where the judges or law clerks stayed while they were on assignment. But the Daily News learned that two hotels frequented by judges are the Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort in St. Thomas and The Buccaneer in St. Croix.
Indeed, the chief judge of the 3rd Circuit, Theodore A. McKee, is scheduled to speak tomorrow at the District Court of the Virgin Islands' second annual conference at Frenchman's Reef, according to the court's website.
Both hotels are posh resorts that offer a plethora of amenities, waterside locations and stunning views.
It's too bad, though, a source said, that the high workload means little, if any, time for the visiting judges to golf or soak up the rays.