Supreme, Superior Courts at Loggerheads Over Merger

While both territorial courts support merging into one entity, the Supreme Court and Superior Court remain at loggerheads over how much authority the Supreme Court would have, the heads of both courts said during budget hearings Thursday. The Senate Finance Committee heard budget testimony from the courts and from the Board of Nurse Licensure.

The idea of merging the courts has come up several times over the years. Multiple years of budget cuts and the Supreme Court recently taking on full authority as the territory’s court of final appeal have increased the interest in recent years. Supreme Court Chief Justice Rhys Hodge urged the merger during budget hearings in 2013, citing a National Center For State Courts study that estimated the merger would save $1.5 million to $1.8 million per year.

Sen. Donald Cole introduced legislation to merge them. The bill was held for amendment in February 2014 after testimony from Hodge and Superior Court Presiding Judge Michael Dunston made clear both courts opposed parts of the legislation. Their testimony also made clear Hodge and Dunston did not agree about the scope of administrative authority of each court after a merger. (See Related Links below)

Both courts once again urgently pleaded for millions of dollars more than their recommended budgets, saying the courts could not function properly without more money. All or nearly all senators present said a merger may be a part of the solution and pressed the top judge and justice on how to accomplish it. Hodge and Dunston testified that their disagreements remained the same.

Saying the merger "may be the solution," Sen. Myron Jackson asked Dunston how he suggested the dispute be resolved.

"I have met on three occasions with the chief justice to bridge the gap," Dunston said, adding that while they found common ground on some aspects, "we were unable to resolve basic philosophical issues about how it should be managed and who reports where."

Dunston said the Superior Court proposed having Superior Court personnel report to the Superior Court presiding judge and for the Supreme Court and the judiciary overall report to the Supreme Court. But, he said, the Supreme Court "remains adamant" that it directly oversee the court system as a whole. "My position would become a figurehead," Dunston said.

Jackson said to Dunston, "It is going to have to be resolved and there will have to be a middle ground."

Later Jackson asked Hodge, "Why can’t we get to a middle ground on merging the courts?"

"A middle ground may be a bad ground," Hodge answered. "The Supreme Court is the highest court. It is the court that has general supervisory authority over the judiciary.”

“It is not going to work. I tried,” Hodge said. “I met twice with the presiding judge. I made concessions and wrote the judge and received a response back I felt was unsatisfactory, that would in my view place the judiciary primarily under the Superior Court."

The governor’s Fiscal Year 2015 recommended budget for the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands is $26.9 million from the General Fund.
The Superior Court submitted a budget request to the Legislature of $31.28 million; $4.37 million more than recommended in the overall executive budget.

The Superior Court budget request includes $17.8 million for wages and salaries. Dunston said this includes $875,000 for court appointed attorneys for indigent representation, investigators, experts, interpreters and other court appointed services. He said the court need $6.78 million for fringe benefits and Social Security and Medicare taxes. If pension reform legislation is passed increasing employer contributions by 2 percent this year, the court will need $227,000 more for that cost, he said.

Another $2.44 million is for operating expenses, including maintaining juries, house arrest electronic monitoring maintenance, traffic ticket printing and so forth. Other services come to $3.56 million, including leases for satellite offices and storage, utilities and contractual services. Utilities are budgeted at $2.8 million.

Equipment costs, including legal materials for law libraries, computer equipment, instruments for the Rising Stars Youth Steel Orchestra programs and other expenses come to $690,000.

For Fiscal Year 2015 the Supreme Court requests $7.91 million from the General Fund. Of that, $4.14 million is wages and salaries; $1.46 million for benefits and taxes; $1.15 million for other services; $230,000 for equipment; $910,000 for all other operating expenses; and $23,000 for the Commission on Judicial Conduct.

The court is requesting $2.43 million more than what is budgeted in the governor’s executive budget.

"As I have told this committee at virtually every budget hearing, $7.5 million more or less is … the absolute minimum necessary for the court to fulfill its statutorily mandated functions," Hodge said.

Also testifying Thursday was Carla King, executive management officer the V.I. Board of Nursing Licensure. The Board of Nursing Licensure is responsible for promoting policies and standards for nursing education, practice and discipline in the territory, and oversees the licensing of nurses in the territory.

For Fiscal Year 2015, the board requests $281,000 from the General Fund for projected salaries and fringe benefits of three full time employees, one part time clerk and professional services – slightly more than the $274,000 recommended by OMB in the Executive Budget. It also requests approval to use $259,000 from the Nurse Licensure Revolving Fund for operating expenses, for a total budget of $541,000. The Nurse Licensure Revolving Fund consists of the licensing fees collected by the board.

No votes were taken during the information gathering budget hearing.

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