The U.S. Virgin Islands Supreme Court and Superior Court remain locked in a debate over the authority the Supreme Court would be allotted if the two systems merged, the courts’ heads said during budget testimonies in July before the 30th Legislature’s Committee on Finance.
Although both courts are in favor of merging into one entity, the question of authority has always been a contentious one. Over the last few years, the idea of merging the courts has become popular, as several years of budget cuts in combination with the Supreme Court’s recent assumption of the mantle of the court of final appeal has made the merger a convenient financial solution. During last year’s budget hearings, Virgin Islands Supreme Court Chief Justice Rhys Hodge publicly supported the merger, citing data from a study by the National Center for State Courts that suggested the Territory could save upwards of $2 million annually.
While the legislation for the merger was introduced at that point, it was held for amendment this February after conflicting testimonies from Chief Justice Hodge and the Superior Court Presiding Justice Michael Dunston showed just how much the courts were in disagreement about allotments of both budget and power.
Both Hodge and Dunston testified that their courts desperately needed millions of dollars more than the budgets the legislation recommended by Governor John P. deJongh would give them, insisting that the courts could not function adequately on the current amounts. The Fiscal Year 2015 recommended budget from the Governor allotted the Superior Court $26.9 million from the General Fund, while the Superior Court requested $31.28 million for salaries, court appointed services, taxes, operating expenses, utility services and youth programs. For its part, the Supreme Court had requested $2.43 million more than the Governor’s recommended budget of $5.48 million, which would cover salaries, benefits, taxes, equipment, operating expenses, the Commission on Judicial Conduct and more.
Additionally, the courts were not in agreement about how much administrative authority each one would maintain after the merger. Hodge and Dunston have met several times to establish areas of agreement, but remain in conflict over what they called the basic philosophical issues about how each court should be managed and where the heads would report. The Superior Court has proposed that its personnel should report to the Superior Court’s presiding judge, while the Supreme Court and the judiciary overall should report directly to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, however, stands firm on its proposal that it should supervise the entire court system, unifying both courts and essentially rendering the presiding judge’s position obsolete or merely symbolic.
No votes were taken during the budget hearing, but all involved are hopeful that the courts will reach a middle ground soon.
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