During Wednesday’s budget hearing, V.I. Superior Court Chief Justice Rhys Hodge sat alongside a panel of judicial branch officials and denounced Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s recommended judiciary budget appropriation of nearly $38 million, citing it as the sixth year the judiciary has been underfunded by at least 17 percent.
The lack of fiscal support has left the judiciary at a “tipping point” Hodge said, and the “cracks in the foundation of our justice system are as visible as those in our aged infrastructure.”
Some of the “cracks” in the justice system Hodge made reference to include a decade’s worth of backlogged court cases, which Hodge attributes to insufficient funding rather than public disasters.
“The Judicial Branch is aware of the backlog of cases in the court,” Hodge said. “While hurricanes Irma and Maria, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, greatly exacerbated and contributed to it, a backlog — particularly in civil cases in the District of St. Croix — has existed since before those events.”
The committee was told that in the past the Judicial Branch “has had no choice but to make do with that appropriation, even if it is highly inadequate to meet even our most basic needs.” Hodge stressed to the committee that though the judiciary attempts to stretch each year’s budget appropriation, “the reward for doing so much with too little has been a stagnant budget, or even a budget cut … failure to appropriately fund the Judicial Branch will result in real and visible consequences.”
The recommended 2022 fiscal year budget is nearly 16 percent less than the total request submitted by the judiciary, and Hodge said though the governor’s recommendation represents a seven percent increase over the “operating ceiling of the branch that has been appropriated for fiscal years 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 respectively, it once again does not adequately address the needs of the judiciary and was made without any input from the judiciary.”
Funding aside, court cases in the U.S. Virgin Islands continue to compile. Sen. Novelle Francis Jr., a non-committee member, said the court is where the people go for resolution. “We expect when we go to court that there will be some reasonable time by which these matters are resolved.”
Superior Court Judge Harold Willocks said the “perception that nothing is being done” by the judiciary to process court cases, specifically complex litigation cases, was both “humorous and unfair.”
With respect to complex litigation cases, Willocks said additional factors must be considered that make it impossible to expedite the cases as quickly as the Legislature wanted. As a judge, Willocks gets handed what is called a master case that he said can contain several hundred individual cases, or as little as 10. While he was able to review the latest master case, Superior Court Judge Alphonso Andrews Jr. was only recently appointed to the position.
“When judge Andrews came in there was some issues we had to address, some adjustments within the division itself, and unfortunately it took time,” Willocks said. He told the committee the two had to sift through all 1,500 individual cases and ensure there were no conflicts and become acquainted with the particulars of each case.
Willocks said the review was done in five months, and 80 to 90 percent of the cases are scheduled in July, “it is not an unreasonable amount of time.”
Though the Complex Litigation Division is on the cusp of beginning to tackle the backlog of court cases within the division, the V.I. judiciary itself is crippled by 94 staff vacancies and budget cuts.
“Every year we come before this body and present a budget which represents our assessment of what are the critical needs of the judiciary, and what we believe we will be able to accomplish in the coming year with the funding sought,” Hodge said. “Every year, without consultation with the judiciary, the Executive Branch includes a recommendation for funding to the judiciary, which seemingly is based purely on the revenue allocation needs of the Executive Branch, and legislative appropriations have generally stayed within those recommendations.”
The judiciary rejected the governor’s proposed budget allocation and instead requested the Legislature review the branch’s recommendation of $45 million for fiscal year 2022.
Sens. Marvin Blyden, Samuel Carrion, Dwayne DeGraff, Donna Frett-Gregory, Janelle Sarauw, and Kurt Vialet were present for the hearing. Sen. Javan James Sr. was absent. Additional non-committee members were also present for the hearing.