V.I. Supreme Court Chief Justice Rhys Hodge told the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday that efforts are being made to reduce the extensive backlog of court cases by utilizing an electronic filing system and furthering what he calls “administration unification” of the Supreme and Superior Courts, part of a law passed in July 2016.
Prior to this law, the Supreme and Superior Courts were administered separately without coordination or any sharing of their already limited resources, resulting in unnecessary duplication and waste, Hodge said.
Hodge said 2020’s fiscal year will be “the climax of a multi-year effort to transform the entire Virgin Islands Judiciary into a modern, 21st century court system.”
“The Virgin Islands Judiciary is not perfect. We are all aware of the existence of case backlogs, particularly in areas such as probate. While we are confident that the new case management and e-filing system will result in improved time-to-disposition rates, we can and must do more to ensure the wheels of justice move swiftly,” Hodge said.
“To that end, the Virgin Islands Judiciary must undergo a complete self-examination to identify the specific areas in which our courts fall short and, more importantly, what realistically can be done to bring about meaningful change that is measurable and attainable in a reasonable time frame,” he added.
This self-assessment, Hodge said, will occur in the coming fiscal year, and though the Supreme Court and the Superior Court have developed their own strategic plans in the past, the self-study will represent the first comprehensive strategic plan developed for the Judiciary as a united whole.
Though Hodge said he deems this self-assessment vital, he also said the Judiciary has already begun several short-term solutions that will reduce the case backlog and improve operations.
“We have done so in three ways: triage of existing cases, reallocation of personnel and resources, and examination of procedure,” he said.
First, Hodge said the Judiciary has completed the process of “administrative unification,” and has reduced the duplication found in the Judiciary. He explained that prior to this the courts employed two of every position, which included court administrators, chief marshals, human resource directors, chief financial officers, chief technology officers, procurement directors and others. Hodge testified that the positions have been consolidated without the dismissal of any employee or reduction in compensation.
Hodge said what is arguably the most important and anticipated change is the launch of the long-awaited Superior Court case management and e-filing system.
“The Judiciary contracted with Thomson Reuters to develop this system shortly after administrative unification and establishment of the Judicial Branch Administrative Office. Despite setbacks in launching the project in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the project remains on track to go live in the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2020,” Hodge said.
With this development, Hodge said, the Judiciary is poised to move entirely to an enterprise application so that both the Superior Court and later the Supreme Court will benefit from the most state-of-the-art case management and e-filing system in existence.
The new system also includes a free publicly accessible docket, an online payment processor and a probation module which Hodge said is projected to save the Judiciary between $300,000 and $400,000 in support and maintenance costs over the next five years.
The electronic system, like the name suggests, will allow the Superior Court to transition from paper records and filings to electronic versions which Hodge said will reduce administrative burdens on attorneys and litigants who will no longer need to travel to a courthouse to file a document or pay a fee or fine.
The Superior and Supreme Courts will also be transitioning into a single Judicial Branch web portal which Hodge said will serve as a “one stop shop” for the public, located at www.vicourts.org.
But how many cases are still backlogged and when can the public expect them to be handled?
Hodge said the backlogged cases are concentrated in a few specific areas.
“The Judiciary has made significant progress with respect to criminal cases, with clearance rates for both criminal jury and criminal non-jury matters of well over 100 percent of the overall criminal caseload. Similarly, the Superior Court disposed of more than 200 family cases than were filed, also resulting in a clearance rate above 100 percent,” Hodge said.
According to Hodge the Judiciary has not performed as well with respect to civil and probate cases. Some of the delay in the civil area, he said, is due to a substantial increase in new case filings, with a 22 percent increase, representing 2,288 new civil matters filed in Fiscal Year 2018.
Hodge said while the clearance rate for probate matters in Fiscal Year 2018 was 94 percent, it still represented a step backwards from Fiscal Year 2017.
While some of the backlog can be attributed to the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Hodge said the problem was exacerbated by the fact that probate cases, as well as certain civil cases, require more judicial resources and involvement than other types of cases.
In Fiscal Year 2019, Hodge said the Judiciary established the Complex Litigation Division of the Superior Court to address a backlog of civil cases, primarily on St. Croix but also St. Thomas, that involved exceptionally complex issues.
A single dedicated judge is assigned to the Complex Litigation Division, Judge Robert Molloy, who only handles these complex cases. Hodge said this ensures that these cases receive the dedicated attention necessary.
Though the Complex Litigation Division has existed for less than a year, Hodge said as of June 30, 2019 it has already resulted in the disposition of 453 complex cases of which 452 involved jury cases. Many of these cases were more than a decade old, according to Hodge.
Senators had little to say to the Judiciary Branch testifiers who asked for a proposed budget of $43,235,998 for the Judicial Branch and additional $115,436 for the Judicial Council, a request that Hodge noted was approximately $3.4 million less than the $46,609,252 requested by the Judiciary for the last fiscal year.
The money, if appropriated, would be broken down as follows: $24,361,991 for personnel; $9.983,714 for fringe benefits which include estimates for additional billings by GERS; $2,597,229 in projected capital expenditures; $1,539,117 for 14 utilities; $700,000 for supplies; and $4,044,947 for recurring general operational expenses which include building, equipment, and vehicle maintenance, rental expenses, computer and communications services, insurance and training expenses.