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Friday, March 1, 2024
HomeNewsLocal governmentV.I. Courts Outline Challenges Caused by Understaffing

V.I. Courts Outline Challenges Caused by Understaffing

Chief Justice of the Virgin Islands Rhys S. Hodge reports 129 vacancies. (Photo by Barry Leerdam)

Chief Justice of the Virgin Islands Rhys S. Hodge reported on Wednesday that the Judiciary Branch of the V.I. has 129 vacancies amounting to $9,528,401.

The branch included a request of $4,264,205 at a 50 percent pro-rate cost in an attempt to keep the salary of a Superior Court judge on par with a Federal District Court Magistrate Judge’s’ five percent salary increase for regular and judicial officers. 

Chairwoman Donna Frett-Gregory advised the branch that the more “realistic” approach would be to outline their core hires and account for those numbers. “Looking at the critical positions needing to be filled are core reporters, deputy marshall officers, court clerks interpreters, cashiers, and pro-rate employees such as law clerks,” said Assistant Administrator of Courts Kevin A. Williams Sr.

During the Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance hearing, the branch stated they are currently in the process of filling 40-60 positions by the end of the fiscal year, which will reduce the overall 129.

Due to short staffing, there is now a large backlog of cases within the judicial branch. Efforts to reduce current backlogs have allowed the branch to “exercise its authority to recall as many former and retired judges to temporary service as Senior Sitting Judges of the Superior Court as the judicial branch budget can sustain,” said Hodge. 

With a limited amount of bodies to accept the temporary fix for the shortage of judges, Hodge said they will continue to examine their internal operation and structure, offering another suggestion to lawmakers. 

Hodge made suggestions to convert the current magistrate judges to full superior court judges and expand the probation and marshals offices to include non-law enforcement officer positions to assist with the monitoring of pretrial release defendants, as well as non-LEO bailiffs to handle courtroom duties instead of marshals.

The most challenging vacancies for the branch to fill are court reporter positions. If a court reporter is not present to record and transcribe a hearing, the hearing does not occur, even if the judge, attorneys, witnesses, and other participants are all available. 

The Fiscal Year 2024 request from the judicial branch is an appropriation of $52,621,081 vs. the governor’s proposed budget of $450 million. A request for a special appropriation of $3,050,020 to fund two “important changes” included start-up costs for an Office of Conflict Counsel projected at $1,6238,803 and the costs associated with the expansion of the Supreme Court from three justices to five justices at $1,421,217, according to the testimony. 

The  $1,421,217 for expanding the Supreme Court from three justices to five justices was authorized by Act No. 7888 in 2016, but no nominations have ever been made for the positions. 

“In recent requests, we have omitted requesting an appropriation for the expansion in the absence of an indication that the Governor intends to submit nominees for one or both new positions. The absence of staggered terms means that there is a very real prospect that there could be 100 percent turnover in the composition of the Supreme Court by 2026 or earlier if any of the three incumbent Justices retire or do not seek reappointment,” Hodge clarified.

The largest request of $49,571,061 is needed to fund regular operations. This amount represents $24,817,244 for salaries and $10,952,546 for fringe benefits; $4,293,624 for other services and charges; $4,209,975 for capital expenditures; $2,348,212 for utilities; and $707,000 for supplies. Salary and fringe benefits requests include funding for 308 filled positions, with the 129 vacancies.

Virgin Islands Inspector General Office

The Virgin Islands Inspector General designee Delia Thomas appeared to be having a smooth transition with filling vacant positions within her jurisdiction as “focus shifted from ensuring that all pending matters were resolved, to assuming the responsibility for the future direction of this office,” she said.

At the start of FY 2023, the department had 15 filled positions, and to date has 17 filled positions. Thomas reported they currently have vacancies for a senior special investigator position on St. Croix and the Virgin Islands deputy inspector general position. “We intend to hire more auditors and other personnel, as needed and the budget permits,” Thomas said.

The V.I. Inspector General Office’s 2024 budget recommendation is $2,470,535. The budget proposal allows for the office to maintain the 17 filled positions and two vacant positions budgeted at half their annual salaries. Supplies costs for FY 2024 are estimated at $55,000, other services at $306,260, utilities at $40,000, and $25,000 in capital outlays cover investigative and computer-related equipment costs, according to the testimony.

Sens. Donna Frett-Gregory, Novelle E. Francis Sr, Carla J. Joseph, Marvin A. Blyden, Samuel Carrion, Dwayne M. DeGraff, Ray Fonseca, Angel Bolques Jr, Kenneth L. Gittens, Marise C. James, Javan James Sr, Milton Potter, and Diane T. Capehart were in attendance at Wednesday’s hearing.

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