Chief Justice Rhys Hodge requested $3 million more than the $40 million the governor has recommended for the territory’s judicial branch, during budget hearings before the Committee on Finance Thursday.
Senators indicated they were not necessarily against the higher request but wanted to see specific costs attached to specific initiatives.
Sen. Carla Joseph asked what it would cost for a comprehensive compensation study. Hodge and his team said the biggest challenge to the judiciary was the retention of employees at current salary rates and such a study was necessary. Rhys said in 2021 the court system had a net loss of seven employees as it lost 42 employees and hired 35. He said he was surprised when signing on new hires to see they were starting at $28,000 and $29,000.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw questioned what it would cost to start paying employees overtime. Employees such as clerks and marshals received compensatory time when they work weekends or late. Sarauw said that compensatory time instead of cash could be “driving employees out the door.” She added that “having a fun working environment” might be good, but “employees can’t take that to the bank.”
The breakdown of the 42 employees leaving in 2021 was 10 had retired, 24 resigned and eight were involuntary departures. According to testimony, most of the voluntary departures cited low pay as the reason.
Hodge testified that although the court system has a total of 425 positions, the request only contemplates funding for 346 positions in 2023.
Another concern of senators was the backlog of cases. Hodge testified that, though the hurricanes of 2017 and the pandemic had caused major challenges to the department, the judicial department never closed.
Testimony indicated that in all cases there was a backlog of 27,000, with 16,000 of those being traffic. Criminal cases are not a high percentage of the backlog, with 300 backlogged in the St. Thomas/St. John district and 1,000 backed up on St. Croix.
Hodge said the budget request being made was the minimum, and “minimum means minimum.”
The request is for $43,104,318, with an additional $127,717 for the Judicial Council, the entity which partially funds the staffing for the District Court law libraries. The request represents $23,491,002 for salaries and $9,969,334 for fringe benefits; $4,293,624 for other services and charges; $2,417,375 in projected capital expenditures; $2,127,983 for utilities; and $805,000 for supplies.
He said the budget request did not include an alternative Public Defender’s Office which was needed. He said many indigent people brought before the court needed more help. The Public Defender’s Office often must take in conflict-of-interest concerns since the public defender might know the alleged offender or someone associated with them.
Hodge also discussed with the senators a challenge the courts are facing that is not financial. Judges are having a hard time getting large enough jury pools from which juries can be selected. Rhys said, though the court takes all necessary steps to make the jury pool safe, and the pandemic fear is lessening, many residents are still “nervous” about showing up for jury duty.
Harold Willocks, presiding judge of the Superior Court, spoke of a recent case he had where a call for over 100 potential jurors went out but only 58 showed up.
The courts are currently using registered voter rolls and motor vehicle registration to get the names of residents to call for jury duty. Hodge said the judiciary is considering trying to get more names through the Water and Power Authority and the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
Among the accomplishments Hodge listed for the judicial branch in recent years were the launch of a new case management system, electronic filing, and free online public access to court records and online payment options in the Superior Court.
He said, “Thus far in the current year the judiciary has expanded electronic filing to include marriage applications and added new online payment options for fines and judgments.”
Senators at the hearing were Kurt Vialet, Marvin Blyden, Sarauw, Joseph, Javan James, Kenneth Gittens, Dwayne DeGraff, and Samuel Carrion.