V.I. Superior Court is stretched too thin and needs more money, Presiding Judge Darryl Donohue said during budget hearings Monday, echoing similar concerns raised by the V.I. Supreme Court during its budget hearing last month. In response, senators asked whether merging Superior Court with the Supreme Court might save money, as the Supreme Court advocates. (See related links below)
"While the recommended $27.9 million appropriation level may have been workable in the past, after several years working with reduced funding levels, we have been placed in a position where critical vacancies have not been filled and it is no longer feasible to continue in this manner," Donohue said. He requested a Fiscal Year 2014 budget of $32.1 million – roughly $4.1 million more than the aforementioned sum recommended in the governor’s budget.
Along with needing to renovate both court complexes and upgrade its information technology, the court is stressed by budget cuts because it has no control over the number of cases it receives, Donohue said. The court "must resolve the legal issues presented to it” and “everyone is entitled to have his or her day in court," he said, noting that there were 23,578 cases filed in 2012, with 14,179 traffic cases, 2,941 marriage applications and 6,458 in all other areas, including criminal, civil, small claims, family/juvenile, probate, domestic violence and forcible entries.
The court closed 22,253 cases that year, and so far this year, the trend "appears to be on track with last year’s statistics," he said.
The court accepted 30,227 new cases in FY11, including 19,854 traffic cases, so the number appears to have declined somewhat in the last two years.
As the court tries to absorb consecutive years of declining budgets, it can no longer give educational incentives or salary adjustments to staff for degrees or credits toward degrees, "rather, they were allowed to accumulate compensatory time," Donohue said.
Several senators, including Sens. Donald Cole and Judi Buckley, asked Donohue about combining all or parts of the Supreme and Superior Court administrative facilities – an approach V.I. Supreme Court Chief Justice Rhys Hodge proposed during that court’s budget hearing in July. (See related links below)
"As we look to your budget request of $32 million, which is down from years before, and you very carefully explained the consequences of these cuts … what would be your opinion toward combining the (two courts’) human resource departments?" Buckley asked.
"There is some merit to combining – or rather, absorbing – some functions," Donohue said. "There are definitely ways we can cooperate further. We have always been open to doing that but the devil is in the details," he said.
Donohue suggested that whether or how the two courts could merge was a "perfect matter to go before" the V.I. Judicial Council, which has "a cross section of the legal community" and input from the Legislature, he said.
Cole said he had legislation pending to address merging the two entities.
Donohue presented the Superior Court’s FY14 General Fund budget request of $32.1 million. Wages and salaries comprise $18.4 million. Employer contributions for Social Security, Medicare and benefits total $6.9 million. Operating expenses consume $2.5 million; utilities and professional services and an array of other miscellaneous expenses come to $3.6 million.
In 2012, Superior Court collected $2.5 million in fines and fees, with 67 percent of that coming from the St. Thomas/St. John district.
No votes were taken at the budget oversight hearing.