Novelle Francis Jr.

Senate President Novelle Francis Jr. expressed support for the judicial branch during Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate Finance Committee.

The V.I. judicial branch on Wednesday urged lawmakers to reject its fiscal year 2021 budget recommendation from the governor, insisting the amount was too low and posed “dire consequences” for the courts.

Appearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Chief Justice Rhys Hodge said the judicial branch initially requested a budget appropriation of $39,179,342.

However, the Bryan administration recommended only $31,825,388 — a drop of roughly $7.3 million and $3.5 million less than the branch’s fiscal year 2020 budget. While Hodge noted that the administration intends to trim budgets amid the financial constraints of COVID-19, he still called the disparity in amounts “striking” and “not workable.”

“The proposed reduction for the judicial branch would set the judiciary back six years, below its 2014 appropriation level,” he said. “The judicial branch simply cannot survive this type of deep budget cut and comply with its constitutional and statutory obligations.”

Hodge said the last few years have seen an “unprecedented” number of separations from the judiciary — 123 departures since 2018, many of which were linked to financial challenges.

“Unfortunately, over the past five fiscal years, the appropriations to the judiciary have not afforded the necessary flexibility to comprehensively address compensation for the branch,” Hodge said. “This, of course, continues to have a negative impact on morale and contributes to current rates of separation.”

Hodge added that the governor’s budget would not fund operational costs such as utilities and the licensing and maintenance requirements for various technology systems and process improvements.

The end result could be layoffs or reduced schedules, both of which could ultimately slow the progress of court operations, Hodge hinted.

“We would simply not have enough money to operate,” he said.

As lawmakers inquired about possible solutions, Hodge insisted the judiciary branch be treated as it should be: as a third branch of the V.I. government, responsible for its own budget like the executive and legislative branches.

He cited the V.I. Code, which requires the chief justice of the territory to submit the proposed annual budget directly to the Senate president without the executive branch as an intermediary.

Whereas the judiciary arrived at its budget request after “careful consideration and thoughtful deliberation” by both the Judicial Management Advisory Council and the Judicial Branch Administrative Office, Hodge said the executive branch’s recommendation was made without any consultation with judicial branch leaders.

“In fact, the judicial branch is not informed of what figure the governor has recommended for the judicial branch until the proposed executive budget is released to the public,” Hodge said.

“The recommendation submitted by the executive branch is therefore arbitrary in the truest sense of that word.”

Moreover, he said, the Senate Finance Committee and the Legislature overall has only shown “deference” toward the executive branch’s recommendations, resulting in many years of the judicial branch receiving an appropriation “completely divorced from its actual needs.”

Lawmakers will get another opportunity to crunch the judiciary branch’s budget numbers in the budget write-up period.

“I share and I support your passion,” said Senate President Novelle Francis Jr. to Hodge. “You’re a coequal branch of government and I too as a leader of a branch of government take great strides in believing … that we should not be acquiescing to decisions that are made by the executive branch.”

— Contact A.J. Rao at 340-714-9104 or email ajrao@dailynews.vi.