V.I. courts butt heads over bill proposing consolidating administration

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ST. THOMAS - The territory's trial court and appellate court are at odds over legislation to consolidate the two courts' administrative functions.

In Thursday's Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee, the two sides presented hours of written testimony on the matter.

Committee chairman Sammuel Sanes made it clear at the start of the hearing that the matter would not be decided that day, and at the end of the hearing, the committee voted to hold the bill for further consideration.

Sanes said at the next hearing to consider the bill, it will be the only item on the agenda to give it the time and attention required. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Donald Cole, is based on a study done by the National Center for State Courts that the V.I. Supreme Court commissioned several years ago. The study looked at the cost benefits of unifying the judicial branch.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Rhys Hodge said Thursday that in a unified judiciary, a single entity, typically the chief justice or Supreme Court, is vested with administrative decision-making authority for the entire judicial branch.

Administrative functions such as human resources, finance, court security, information technology and procurement would fall under the chief justice, he said.

Hodge said 34 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., give this authority to the chief justice; 15 states give it to the state's Supreme Court; and one state, Utah, places the administrative authority in a judicial council of which the chief justice is the chairman.

When the law to create the territory's own appellate court first was implemented, the administrative functions for the whole court system were given to the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

As the high court was forming in 2007, it contracted the National Center for State Courts to study models of governance and propose recommendations for the Virgin Islands, Hodge said.

What the report recommended was to establish an administrative office of the courts, headed by an administrator who would be appointed by the chief justice. The report also recommended the Supreme Court establish a policy committee with representatives from each court within the judicial branch.

About one month after an administrator was put in place, the V.I. Legislature changed the law, Hodge said.

A bill was passed "in the middle of the night" that stripped administrative authority from the Supreme Court and allowed the Superior Court to have its own separate administration, according to Hodge.

"I must emphasize that nothing happened to cause or justify this significant change, other than the then-presiding judge's perception that a unified system would not allow him to exercise the same powers as his predecessors," Hodge said.

Retired V.I. Superior Court Senior Sitting Judge Darryl Donohue Sr. was presiding judge of the Superior Court at the time.

The current presiding judge, Michael Dunston, testified in opposition to a unified system at Thursday's Senate hearing.

Dunston said the proposed bill employs a "meat cleaver" technique for reorganizing the judicial branch, rather than a "surgeon's scalpel."

The judicial branch already is stressed from operating under a reduced budget, Dunston said.

"It places enormous power within a single position, the chief Justice of the Supreme Court, while reducing the presiding judge of the Superior Court to a mere figurehead and, worse, removing substantial checks and balances on that power within the judicial branch," Dunston said.

He said the separate administrative duties of the two courts do not duplicate efforts.

"In short, this legislation purports to 'fix' a system that is not broken," Dunston said.

Dunston called the National Center for State Courts' study "flawed" and said it fails to recognize the impact its recommendations would have on the territory's system.

He made it clear that he respects the justices of the Supreme Court, and said he does not believe any of them would abuse the additional power.

"I express my concerns precisely because those justices will not occupy their positions forever, and because we have no guaranty that their successors would have the same integrity and altruistic goals or would not be motivated by more political, personal or more mundane concerns," Dunston said.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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