Certainly no other court is more familiar with the factual background and legal issues of this case than the District Court for the Virgin Islands, and there is little doubt that transfer of this case will promote significant economy of judicial resources.
The final factor to consider is the "interest of justice," a somewhat amorphous term consisting of numerous considerations such as the desire to avoid multiple litigation from a single transaction, to try related litigation together, to conserve judicial resources, and to consider the regional nature of a dispute. See Wright et al., supra, § 3854. Amorphous though it may be, the interest of justice "may be decisive in ruling on a transfer motion even though the convenience of the parties and witnesses point in a different direction." Id.
Plaintiffs make the very serious argument that the interest of justice is served by maintaining this action in the District of Columbia because they cannot receive a fair trial in the Virgin Islands. In more than sixty sworn affidavits, Plaintiffs describe the charged political atmosphere in the Virgin Islands surrounding this case, and relate specific incidents of alleged harassment. For example, Mr. Weiss' office sign was torn off of its brackets, he received a hand-delivered notice of a $ 12,000 V.I. tax assessment that he says is unfounded, and shortly after the TRO hearing in the earlier case, some unidentified people yelled epithets in front of his home at 2:00 a.m., and appear to have fired a gun at one of his dogs. Furthermore, a number of Plaintiffs were subjected to unscheduled and unheard of governmental inspections in the week between issuance of the TRO and the preliminary injunction hearing -- a type of aggressive government intrusion which is alleged to be most unusual in the Virgin Islands. Moreover, one of plaintiffs' expert witness' employees was escorted into a local senator's office and "grilled" about the witness' business operations. Finally, Plaintiffs complain that the local press has denounced their attempts to protect the environment and endangered species, and labeled the Plaintiffs and their counsel as racist. The public debate was so bitter, according to the Plaintiffs, that Judge Finch cautioned against retaliation. In sum, argue Plaintiffs, the rancorous debate surrounding the issue, as well as specific acts of harassment and retaliation, will poison any proceeding in the Virgin Islands court, and make a fair trial impossible.
The Court considers this a charge of the utmost gravity. It is extraordinary to charge that a particular court or judge cannot conduct a fair trial and issue an impartial judgment. The Court has read every word of the submitted affidavits and supporting material. It is true that they reveal a highly-charged atmosphere surrounding this case. Moreover, it does appear that there has been some low-level harassment of Plaintiffs' counsel and witnesses. But Plaintiffs have not begun to establish that the District Court of the Virgin Islands cannot uphold the high standards of the federal bench to conduct a fair and impartial trial.
While the submitted affidavits describe a heated political climate with strong rhetoric, they do not demonstrate much beyond that. Many of the sixty-four affidavits submitted were virtually identical, and most referred to the same few alleged incidents. For example, a number of affiants discussed a particular Plaintiff who was told that her business would cease to receive government contracts if she continued to be involved in the case. But Plaintiffs have not shown that any retaliatory action was taken against her. Similarly, Plaintiffs affirm that a number of people have been subject to unusual audits and examinations by the Virgin Islands licensing authorities, but have not shown any adverse consequences such as lost business, revoked licenses, fines levied, etc. Significantly--and fortunately--there has been no physical violence against any Plaintiff or counsel, and the alleged incidents of harassment--though personally frightening--are minor in nature in the context of this deeply felt public issue.
The community is clearly passionate on this subject, and that has resulted in some intemperate, even racist, remarks. This is a matter of great public concern in the Virgin Islands, just as housing disputes of this nature are of equally intense concern just about anywhere in the United States. People feel passionately about where they live and who lives with or near them. Nothing in the record, however, suggests that the justice system in the Virgin Islands cannot impartially adjudicate this matter despite the political overtones of the case and the sometimes racially-charged rhetoric of the public debate.
There is no question that this type of heated atmosphere puts additional pressure on judges. But that is far from saying that a federal judge in the Virgin Islands cannot hold a fair trial or render a fair judgment. When federal judges take their oath of office they swear to impartially administer justice and uphold the Constitution of the United States. In difficult cases like this one, that oath is particularly compelling, and no evidence has been presented to establish that it will not be carried out in the finest tradition of the federal bench.
In sum, Plaintiffs have failed to show that they cannot receive a fair trial in the District Court of the Virgin Islands. Thus, the interest of justice favors transferring this case, as do the other factors discussed above. The Court concludes, therefore, that this case should be transferred to the District Court of the Virgin Islands pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). An Order will issue with this Opinion.
U.S. District Court