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Delaware Docket Newsletter
Fall 2012

"No Courts - No Justice - No Freedom"
Chief Justice Steele's 2012 State of the Judiciary Remarks Highlighted

"Courts have continued to use their limited resources as effectively as possible. There is a point, however, no matter how creative we are, that the well runs dry. There have been a number of times since the State's serious fiscal challenges began in February of 2008 when I thought we had reached that point, and miraculously, the judges and court staff found ways to keep the courts moving forward. It is through their true 'grit' that the Delaware court system maintains its reputation and effectiveness, despite deepening adversity."
Chief Justice Myron T. Steele

When Chief Justice Myron T. Steele delivered his State of the Judiciary Remarks at the Bench and Bar Conference in the summer, he spoke about the "enormous value that our courts bring to our governmental system and society," and focused on the serious challenges the courts face, which have the potential to undermine the Courts' ability to enforce the rule of law. He stated that the risks are even greater when the practical reward of the Delaware courts " the substantial revenue brought to the State of Delaware by business entities, and the related economic activity generated because business leaders choose Delaware Courts for determination of business disputes " is considered. The Chief Justice referred to the $1.5 billion in State revenue, from income and franchise taxes and fees from business entities, UCC filings, and abandoned property, representing 40% of the State's operating budget, which can be attributed to the Delaware Judiciary. The Delaware Judiciary brought in an additional $15.9 million in state revenue in FY 2011 from court filing fees and costs.

He applauded the work of Delaware's fifteen problem-solving courts, including drug courts, gun courts, mental health courts, reentry courts, truancy courts, a trauma-informed probation court and a veterans' treatment court, and their success in reducing recidivism rates and saving criminal justice resources. He praised the completion of the new Kent County Court complex last summer, which offers a well designed and secure courthouse to judges, court staff, and members of the public in Kent County.

The Chief Justice spoke about the courts' projects to achieve system efficiencies, such as CCP's SPEED docket for expediting civil litigation, the Justice of the Peace Court's Prosecution Project, which has reduced transfer of traffic cases to the Court of Common Pleas by 43%, as well as Family Court's distinction as the first court to collect statewide information on national dependency and neglect performance measures. Delaware Courts continue to be recognized on a national and international level. For example, the Delaware Supreme Court and Court of Chancery retain positions on the list of the Directorship's top 100 most influential players in corporate governance. As the Directorship stated, "For other states looking longingly at Delaware's dominance in business law, there appears to be no catching up."

The biggest challenge to our courts, the Chief Justice concluded, was the "false illusion . . . that our courts can continue to manage their growing caseloads — up 17% overall for Delaware Courts in the last ten years — without additional resources to address unmet needs. . . . Although we are proud of what we have been able to accomplish with stagnant funding, we cannot maintain our 'bargain basement' status indefinitely."

Acknowledging his relief that the two new Superior Court judges and staff will finally be available in January 2013, he expressed his appreciation of the Bar's strong support of efforts to obtain these critically needed resources, and the commitment of the Joint Finance Committee and Representative Melanie Smith, in particular, to funding the new judges.

The Chief Justice also spoke of the beneficial impact of the 2% increase to Judicial Branch employees in January 2012 " the first pay increase since 2007 " and the additional 1% received in July 2012. However, he lamented that, "even with those increases, compensation rates for state employees fall further and further behind inflation and benefit cost increases."

He commented on the fact that Delaware judges' national standing, based upon judicial compensation comparisons with other states that compete with us as a center for business disputes resolution, has fallen " as a result of minimal pay increases for Delaware judges since 2005, when the last Delaware Compensation Commission issued a report. When inflation during that period is factored in, judges' pay has eroded substantially, or close to $25,000 per judge. Compensation has been further eroded by rising benefit costs, with health care contributions paid by individual employees increasing around 60%, on average, between FY 2007 and FY 2012. "With the Delaware Compensation Commission scheduled to issue its next report this fall," Chief Justice Steele said, "it will be difficult for the Commission to address fairly both past pay inadequacies and future financial growth implications, unless the Commission refocuses on an objective assessment of salaries rather than gauging the political winds at the time."

Chief Justice Steele closed his remarks with a reference to the ABA's theme for this year's Law Day — "No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom" — because it captures the risks the courts face with "absolute clarity." He concluded that Delaware has been more fortunate than other states, in some respects, but the "failure to fund state courts, including Delaware courts, properly over the long term degrades public safety by delaying resolution of criminal cases, and damages our system of government by weakening the judiciary and its ability to protect the rule of law."

Chief Justice Steele
Chief Justice Steele pictured with Iraqi Chief Justice Madhat Al Mahmood and Mary McQueen, National Center for State Courts President.

Chief Justice Steele provided opening remarks for the Iraqi Chief Justice Madhat Al Mahmood's presentation to the media and legal community on June 25, 2012 in Washington, D.C. Chief Justice Steele referred to Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.'s remarks to the Conference of Chief Justices in Wilmington, Delaware on January 30, 2012, when he acknowledged the critical role of the courts in upholding citizens' basic liberties and in supporting American exceptionalism in its deep commitment to the rule of law. Chief Justice Steele recognized Chief Justice Al Mahmood's many contributions in establishing an independent judiciary, and the building of commitment to the rule of law, in Iraq. Chief Justice Al Mahmood spoke on the Iraqi Judiciary: Successes and Challenges since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003 and spoke of his country's pioneering experiences to build a judiciary based on the rule of law after 40 years of totalitarianism.