THE CHIEF JUSTICE REMARKS ON THE STATE OF THE JUDUCIARY AT BENCH AND BAR
At the Bench and Bar Conference on June 9, 2010, Chief Justice Myron T. Steele presented his annual State of the Judiciary message. He spoke about both the fiscal and budget challenges facing Delaware's Judicial Branch and recent accomplishments. Chief Justice Steele stated that "the Judicial Branch continues to struggle to manage growing demands on the constitutionally-mandated services we provide, with diminishing resources." He highlighted the Judiciary's efforts since the beginning of the fiscal challenges in 2008 to work in partnership with the other branches of government in addressing the State's serious fiscal problems. Those efforts led to the Judiciary adjusting to several million dollars in budget cuts between FY 2008 and FY 2010, instituting a stringent hiring review process starting in March 2008 which resulted in savings to the State of more than $3.5 million in the last two years, and increasing state revenues by close to $5 million during that period through fee increases, collections efforts, and other sources.
"The Delaware Courts' position of pre-eminence benefits far more than the litigants who choose our courts. According to the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, the arm of the Chamber which conducted the survey, two-thirds of the corporate lawyers surveyed stated that a state's legal environment is ‘likely to impact important business decisions at their company, such as where to locate or expand their business " up 10% from just three years ago.'"
Chief Justice Myron T. Steele
He spoke about the 2.5% pay cut in FY 2010 for state employees which brought employee morale to a low point, noting that the restoration of personnel funding to return Judicial Branch employees' salaries to pre-2.5% pay cut levels was the Judicial Branch's top priority for FY 2011. [The State's FY 2011 budget, implemented on July 1, 2010, returned state employees' compensation to pre-pay cut levels.] He highlighted the commitment of the members of the Judiciary who, in support of staff, all voluntarily took a similar reduction in pay in FY 2010, either through a voluntary pay reduction or contributions to law related organizations, without regard to deductibility. In addition to expressing concerns about long-term pay inadequacies for employees, as well as the negligible pay increases provided to Delaware judges since 2005 (the last Compensation Commission Report), the Chief Justice focused on the critical need for additional judicial and staff resources to address burgeoning caseloads, stressing the need to fully fund the two new Superior Court judges for New Castle County and associated staff so that those desperately needed resources can be available to address workload demands. A high point of the FY 2011 budget is the $19.2 million appropriated to continue renovation of the Kent County Courthouse, which will help bring the new construction phase of the project to completion in July 2011, with renovations of the historic courthouse to begin immediately thereafter.
The Chief Justice also discussed growing fiscal concerns about dramatically increasing indigent services costs for court-appointed attorneys who represent indigent persons in criminal cases. Those cost increases specifically related to an escalating number of capital and murder 1 cases involving conflict attorney representation, with costs jumping from $132,000 in FY 2006 to over $1 million in FY 2010.
Despite fiscal challenges, the Chief Justice emphasized the Courts' continuing ability to process cases as efficiently as possible with the limited resources currently available. Efforts to achieve system-wide improvements continue, through initiatives such as the Delaware Supreme Court Task Force on Criminal Justice and Mental Health, chaired by Justice Henry duPont Ridgely, which continues work to improve outcomes for persons with mental illness engaged in the criminal justice system and the Delaware Courts: Fairness for All Task Force, co-chaired by Chief Magistrate Alan Davis and State Court Administrator, Pat Griffin, which is currently implementing steps to improve the accessibility and perceived fairness of the courts. He underscored the Delaware Judiciary's efforts to be poised to handle disputes arising out of choice-of-court agreements in international business contracts following last year's signing of the Hague Convention on Choice of Court Agreements by the United States. Those efforts include the Complex Commercial Litigation Division established by the Superior Court and procedural changes for business dispute arbitrations enacted by the Court of Chancery.
The Chief Justice's remarks also drew attention to the continuing pre-eminence of the Delaware Courts, as demonstrated by a recent national survey on fairness of process, which ranked Delaware Courts, with the focus on the Superior Court, as the premier courts in the country, for the eighth year in a row.
In addition to administrative highlights, such as the adoption of a model policy for courts to address domestic violence in the workplace, the Chief Justice featured other court accomplishments, such as:
- Expansion of the Court of Chancery's guardianship program through a volunteer monitoring program;
- Superior Court's mortgage foreclosure mediation program, felony Violation of Probation Mental Health Court, and Veterans' Court;
- Family Court's specialized Juvenile Gun Court and development of a risk assessment for pre-adjudicated juveniles;
- Justice of the Peace Court's and Court of Common Pleas' e-filing and e-payment initiatives; and
- Justice of the Peace Court's police prosecution project.