Superior Court Strikes Down Senate’s Hospital Board Changes

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V.I. Superior Court has struck down an act of the Legislature that aimed at restructuring V.I. public hospital boards, saying it violated the separation of powers doctrine and federal law by taking away the executive function of appointing and removing members.

The ruling is a qualified victory for Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., who filed suit to overturn the legislation. If the Legislature chooses to appeal the Superior Court ruling, the V.I. Supreme Court may weigh in.

Because the ruling hinges on interpretations of federal law and past U.S. Supreme Court decisions affecting more than one U.S. territory, it could conceivably wind up in federal court at some point. But as of the May 20 ruling by Superior Court Judge Sigrid M. Tejo, the law is struck down and is not the law of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The legislation, Bill 33-0343, proposed by Sen. Kurt Vialet (D-STX), aimed to decrease the number of board members on the Health Facilities Corporation Board from 15 to 13 and establish a set of criteria for being suitable to serve on the board. It set new criteria for the two separate hospital boards, for St. Thomas and St. Croix hospitals and for the Health Facilities Corporation Board, which oversees both boards and hospitals. (See: Rules and Judiciary Panel Forwards Six Pieces of Legislation.)

Significantly, the bill declared those members of the two hospital boards appointed by the governor could not serve on the parent Health Facilities Corporation Board. And it removed the governor’s ability to remove board members for cause.

The Legislature approved the bill in September of 2020. (See: Legislature Forwards Bills and Nominees, Overrides Vetoes.) Bryan vetoed the measure, arguing it violated the U.S. legal doctrine of separation of powers as applied to the U.S. Virgin Islands through federal law in the form of the Revised Organic Act of 1954.

The Legislature then overrode Bryan’s veto and Bryan filed suit to strike down the changes. (See: Governor Files Court Motion Over Veto Override.)

In an interview with the Source, Vialet said he did not understand the governor’s objection.

“We have other boards that are not named by the governor, like the Magens Bay Board, where they literally interview individuals and they name the board members themselves. There are a number of boards where members are appointed through various mechanisms … I don’t see how this bill, in particular, violates the Organic Act,” Vialet said in February.

By statute, the V.I. governor is a member of the Magens Bay Board and so has a role in naming members. And the governor may remove members of the Magens Bay Board for cause.

The court’s ruling cited a 1948 U.S. Supreme Court case upholding the doctrine of separation of powers in U.S. territories.

Tejo’s ruling says in part that “the executive power of the government extends to the general administrative control of those executing the laws, including the power of appointment and removal of executive officers,” and that the legislative power includes “the authority to make laws, but not to enforce them or appoint agents charged with the duty of such enforcement.”

The court found that Act 8438 violated the Revised Organic Act, as it eliminated the governor’s ability to remove members of the Hospital Corporate and the district boards.