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Superior Court Judge 'Makes His Case' for More Funding

July 11, 2006 – A budget request of approximately $26.4 million for fiscal year 2007 is a "bare-bones" account of what the Judicial Branch needs to cover its operating expenses and services, Superior Court Presiding Judge Rhys S. Hodge said during Tuesday's budget hearing. Hodge said the request, which represents a $1.46 million increase over last year's budget, was "carefully" deliberated on and planned by members of the judiciary.
The budget includes: $1.5 million for utilities and rental costs; $900,000 for new equipment; $500,000 to complete the redesign and computerization of one courtroom in each district and to upgrade the Superior Court's overall system; and $367,000 for employee training.
The most substantial portion of the budget (approximately $15.7 million) is dedicated to personnel services, while $4.75 million goes toward fringe benefits–including a minimal cost-of-living adjustment for court employees, Hodge said. He added that while such an adjustment has not been a constant part of the judicial budget over the years, it does ensure that "employees' salaries keep pace with the increased cost of living."
Hodge advocated that judges also receive an incremental 2 percent wage increase per year, until the salaries of local judges align themselves with those of U.S. District Court judges. "Based on the workload of our judges and the seriousness and complexity of the cases handled, there can be no justification as to why they should earn less than a federal magistrate judge," he said.
While Hodge explained that judges in the territory have received one wage hike in the last 15 years, he said that a recommended $200,000 for salary increases had not been included in this year's budget. However, Hodge added that the court could absorb the cost if the Legislature authorized a wage increase.
After the meeting, Hodge said V.I. Superior Court judges earn $135,000 per year, while federal magistrate judges annually earn $156,000. A U.S. District Court judge, however, makes $165,000 per year.
An increase in fees paid to court-appointed attorneys is also not included in the FY 2007 judicial budget, Hodge said. He explained that fee rates – established by the federal Criminal Justice Act – changed in 2000, bringing the different rates set for "out-of-court work" and "in-court work" to a flat fee of $92 for both.
However, Superior Court has continued to pay attorneys at the old fee rates and has budgeted accordingly, Hodge said. He added that while the V.I. Bar Association is currently working on a local plan to put an increase in place, senators should look at creating an Alternate Public Defender Office responsible for defending multiple individuals.
"This would save on costs for appointed private counsel," he added.
Hodge further suggested that senators begin to include an annual appropriation of $2.5 million to fund the operation of a local Supreme Court.
Though senators did not extensively question Hodge on the budget, they did discuss at length a variety of other topics–including how the judicial branch is maintaining its facilities, how to reduce the backlog of cases pending throughout the territory and what the government could do to cut crime levels.
"Crime, especially those acts committed by youth, are increasing," Sen. Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion said. "And I know it's having its impact on the judicial system. It seems as if nine out of every 10 cases deal with children, and it's making us wonder what's happening to the V.I.?"
While Hodge agreed with Encarnacion's statements, he said that there is a lack of alternative programs for youth within the territory, and a limited number of facilities to house juveniles when they are "processed" through the criminal justice system.
"So when people come into the family court and say, 'Hey, I don't want this child,' the court has to find a place to put them," Hodge said. "The only option is to send them to St. Croix. It's just a sad situation – one that needs to be immediately addressed."
Chief District Court Judge Raymond L. Finch – who came to testify in support of a budget request for the Judicial Council of the Virgin Islands (JCVI) — added that establishing more youth programs and facilities doesn't mean juveniles have to be "locked up."
"What we need are places where families can go to participate in a broad range of programs designed to address problems which occur in children early on, like around the age of 12 or 13," he said. "We have to have a meaningful way of giving that help at an early age, instead of addressing problems when the children turn up at age 18 or 19, after they've decided to rob someone."
In his presentation, Hodge said the judiciary has been doing its part by hosting a number of youth initiatives, including a summer internship program, the annual high school Appellate Moot Court Competition and the Rising Stars Youth Steel Orchestra on St. Thomas.
Hodge added that the court is currently working on bringing the steel pan program to St. Croix and is in the process of attempting to lease a facility for activities.
In other news, Finch spoke in support of a $429,098 budget request for FY 2007. He said the funds would cover the cost of operations for JCVI, an informal group that "meets to solve various problems within the judicial branch."
Finch said the figure is $119,447 more than what the council received for FY 2006. The increase, he said, would fund cost-of-living adjustments, payroll contributions and salary increases.
Present during Tuesday's meeting were Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Roosevelt C. David, Liston Davis, Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill, Neville James, Norman Jn Baptiste, Usie R. Richards and Ronald E. Russell.
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