How the Virgin Islands and Philly ended up in same circuit

Posted: January 17, 2011

Nobody seems to know how a remote American territory 1,000 miles south of Miami and 40 miles east of Puerto Rico ended up in the same federal judicial circuit as Philadelphia.

The U.S. Virgin Islands became part of the nation in 1917 when they were bought from Denmark. The act of Congress that finalized the sale also made the islands part of the 3rd Circuit, which is based in Philly.

Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., set out in the mid-1990s to find out why the islands are part of the 3rd Circuit. An expert in admiralty law, Jarvis read old newspapers, interviewed people, researched the Congressional Record and traveled to the Caribbean.

He found very little information but theorized that a prominent Delaware senator influenced Congress to have the 3rd Circuit take the islands and nobody cared enough at the time to argue about it.

He presented his theory in a 1995 article in the Journal of Maritime Law and Commerce. The 3rd Circuit seemed like the logical choice at the time, he suggested.

"Turning to the other circuits, there was no real possibility of placing the Islands in one of them," he wrote. "The First Circuit already was supervising Puerto Rico. The Second Circuit's docket was overwhelmed with cases from New York. The Fourth Circuit, with only two authorized judges, had been considered short-handed for years."

At the time, the 5th Circuit included Florida, which is now part of the 11th Circuit, but that wasn't a good match, either.

"The Fifth Circuit, although geographically closest to the Islands, was handling appeals from the District Court in the Panama Canal Zone. As for the remaining circuits, they were simply too distant to provide effective oversight," his article said.

One of the instances that strengthened the relationship between the 3rd Circuit and the Virgin Islands, Jarvis said, was when Albert B. Maris sat on the Appellate Court in Philadelphia. He heard a murder case in the Virgin Islands in February 1950 - the first time a judge held a session in the islands.

Jarvis didn't address how Maris took to the Caribbean territory. But in the 1950s, Maris helped to formulate the laws in the Virgin Islands.

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