Heads of the V.I. Supreme and Superior courts gathered on St. Thomas Friday to join the ranks of officials who’ve appeared before the Senate over the past few weeks to make their plea for more funding for operations in fiscal year 2011.
During a short meeting of the Senate’s Budget and Appropriations Committee, both sides of the judiciary submitted General Fund budget requests higher than those recommended by the executive branch, and told senators that as the courts and their responsibilities continue to grow, so should their funding.
The executive branch’s FY 2011 recommendation for the V.I. Supreme Court is $6.4 million, but Chief Justice Rhys S. Hodge told senators Friday that he was looking for nearly $7.6 million. Of that amount, about $5 million would be put toward staff salaries and other personnel-related costs, while the remaining $2.4 million will cover operations, he said.
"The court recognizes its need to continue to build its personnel structure to ensure thorough implementation of its strategic plan and have requested the fiscal resources to do so," he explained. Hodge talked about staffing of an Office of Disciplinary Council within the Supreme Court that will investigate and prosecute complaints against judicial officers, such as attorneys and judges.
The need for such an entity was highlighted after the V.I. Commission on Judicial Disabilities announced that it would investigate complaints against now retired V.I. Superior Court Judge Leon Kendall. In the end, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals nullified the commission in 2009, ruling that it violated the separation of powers principle of the three branches of government.
Hodge also said Friday that the court anticipates a jump in maintenance costs for equipment and insurance, which is also budgeted in the $7.6 million request.
Finally, $250,000 is budgeted to finalize the acquisition of land on St. Croix; the Supreme Court currently has an office on Strand Street, but is looking for a more permanent headquarters, Hodge said, adding that in the end, the budget for the Supreme Court represents a little less than 1 percent of the budget for the entire central government.
"We continue to recognize the global impact of the recession on the territory’s revenues and remain committed to working with the other branches of government to share in any necessary sacrifices," he said. "The court simply requests that its share of that burden is in direct relation to its funding needs."
Hodge also requested a $331,913 General Fund budget for the Judicial Council, while the government recommendation for FY 2011 is $279,000.
The FY 2011 General Fund recommendation for the V.I. Superior Court is approximately $30.2 million, but the court’s Presiding Judge Darryl D. Donohue Sr. told senators Friday that he has submitted a request for $35.3 million.
Over the years, the court has sustained numerous cuts to its budget, and has had to hold off on improving or renovating its facilities on both St. Thomas and St. Croix, upgrading its motor fleet — which impacts its marshals — and buying security equipment, he said.
Meanwhile, any hopes of increasing the salaries of attorneys representing indigent clients has had to be put on the back burner, and the court’s low fees have not provided much financial help, Donohue added He said the court had requested extra funds in the FY 2010 budget to cover the fee increase, but didn’t get all of its allotment.
In the meantime, the court has also cut back by reducing its overtime spending, cutting the cost of inter-island travel by holding teleconferences and eliminating non-critical vacancies, Donohue said. But now, with the Magistrate Court divisions fully online and the court’s caseload growing exponentially, it’s time for the money to come through, he said.
The court’s $35.3 million request is a "mere" 3.9 percent of the territory’s overall budget, he added.
Present during Friday’s hearing were Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Sammuel Sanes and Patrick Simeon Sprauve.