Women Rule: Three Female Jurists Honored at Superior Court Investiture Ceremony on St. Thomas

Superior Court Judge Sigrid Tejo and Magistrate Judges Paula Norkadis and Simone Van Holten-Turnbull stand surrounded by leaders of the Executive and Legislative branches of government and fellow jurists on Friday following their investiture. (Judi Shimel photo)

Officials of the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands held a formal investiture for three jurists from the St. Thomas-St. John district Friday. Top officials from the territory’s three branches of government, lawmakers, and the legal community joined friends and families of the honorees in witnessing an historic occasion.

It was an occasion that led the Superior Court’s new presiding judge to affirm the significance of the day. For the first time in the history of the once-named Territorial Court, nine of the 14 judges who serve are women, said Presiding Judge Debra Smith-Watlington.

Watlington added that with the investiture of Superior Court Judge Sigrid Tejo and Magistrate Judges Paula Norkadis and Simone Van Holten-Turnbull, every jurist serving in the St. Thomas-St. John district is a woman.

“It is a distinct honor for me to preside over this historic investiture,” Watlington said. Chief Justice Rhys Hodge of the Virgin Islands Supreme Court administered the oath of office to Norkadis and Tejo. Associate Supreme Court Justice Ive Arlington Swan administered the oath of Van Holten-Turnbull.

Swan addressed the audience before performing his duty, saying he asked to be granted the personal privilege of swearing in Turnbull, a family member. After both high court judges administered the oath, a marshal of the court stepped up with a black judicial robe draped over his outstretched arms. Each jurist donned the robe, then accepted the wooden gavel presented by Watlington.

But just before the formalities began, the presiding judge read the proclamations signed by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. appointing Norkadis, Tejo, and Van Holten-Turnbull to their respective posts.

Norkadis began her career in the Virgin Islands shortly after arriving in the territory in 1997. She served with the Justice Department and later joined a private law firm, Dudley, Topper, and Feuerzeig. She also served for a while defending indigent criminal defendants in the Office of the Territorial Public Defender.

Tejo was born on St. Croix and attended St. Dunstan’s School before attending college in Florida. According to her biography, her legal career began as a paralegal for the public defender’s office. Years later, Tejo entered law school and went on to serve as a prosecutor in Florida. Upon her return to the Virgin Islands, she served in the Office of Collective Bargaining and went on to work in the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a federal prosecutor.

Van Holten-Turnbull was born and raised on St. Thomas and attended Sts. Peter and Paul High School. After graduating college in Florida, Van Holten-Turnbull came home and worked as a law clerk for then-Judge Swan in the Territorial Court of the Virgin Islands. Her legal career took her to serve in the Legislature as an assistant legal counsel. From there, she accepted an opportunity to work with the Justice Department and later became a public defender.

Bryan took the opportunity to reflect on the moment. “When Judge Watlington came up here and spoke about having so many women, I thought it was a revolution. I was nervous, but then I thought, ‘Hey, I’ve got two daughters — I’m good,” the governor said.

Bryan also implored the new judges to do all they can to help clear the backlog of cases that has persisted in the courts for years. “Justice has to be swift. Whatever you need to move these dockets along, the Senate president and I are able to help,” he said.

All three jurists began serving from the bench in their respective branches of the court system after Bryan signed their appointments. But because of the public health restrictions imposed at the time because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a formal swearing-in was put off until Friday.

Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory offered her congratulations. “You have moved from practicing law to interpreting law,” Frett-Gregory said. “You shift from arguing for a single purpose to hearing the arguments from both sides … ”

And representing the Virgin Islands Bar Association, attorney Adrienne Dudley conveyed her own well wishes. “I salute you all and ask you to bring the same hard work, dedication, and diligence that you brought to your careers … to the administration of the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands,” Dudley said.

The three honorees join one new jurist sworn in on St. Croix on Oct. 25, the Hon. Yolan Brow-Ross, as well as the Hon. Alphonso Andrews Jr., who previously served as a judge in the Territorial Court from 1994 to 2000.