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History of the Former Municipal Court of Wilmington

(Return to History of the Court of Common Pleas)

The black judicial robes appearing in the Municipal Court of the city of Wilmington have graced individuals great and small, good and bad. From that bench have come a United States senator, a founding partner in one of Delaware's most prestigious law firms and an associate judge of the Delaware Superior Court; two other judges have gone on to be convicted or disbarred for mishandling clients' funds. It has been a court of initiative and innovation, with the appointment of the first African-American judge in Delaware and another judge receiving national awards for new programs. Yet, in its early years, there was an embarrassing political wrangle over the single judicial appointment, which conflict had to be resolved by the Delaware Supreme Court.

A "Mayor's Court for the City of Wilmington" was established in 1832. Conducted by the mayor, alderman and president of city council, or any two of them, prosecutions were by Information, without indictment by grand jury or trial by petit jury.


In 1883 the General Assembly, by statute, established the Municipal Court for the City of Wilmington, providing for a judge appointed by the governor for a term of twelve years.

As with the earlier Mayor's Court, the new Municipal Court had jurisdiction over misdemeanors committed within the city and offenses against city laws, as well as preliminary proceedings in felony cases. The city solicitor prosecuted, subject to the right of the Attorney General of the state to do so.

Witnesses were paid fifty cents per day; any witness who failed to claim that princely sum within thirty days discovered that the fee had been forfeited to the city.

In one interesting sign of the times, the city judge was also empowered to conduct a "private examination of married women parties to deeds and mortgages, in like manner as a notary public may, for which he is entitled to receive a fee of seventy-five cents, to be paid to the Clerk of the Court for the use of the city."

Chief Judges

The first Municipal Court judge was Walter Cummins. He had studied law under the direction of Thomas F. Bayard after graduating from Princeton in 1868 and had served as city solicitor and counsel for the trustees of the poor in New Castle County. Admitted to the bar of New Castle County on May 13, 1872, he served as judge from 1883 to 1888.

He was succeeded by J. Frank Ball who had graduated from Princeton in 1876 with an A.B. and M.A. After studying law under Charles B. Lore, he was admitted to the bar on April 24, 1879. Elected city auditor in 1882, he served in that post until he was chosen city solicitor in 1887. He was appointed to the Municipal Court bench in 1888, serving until 1900.

On October 22, 1900, Governor Ebe Walters Tunnell nominated Edward R. Cochran, Jr. as Municipal Court Judge, but the appointment was not confirmed by the Senate at its January, 1901 session. Subsequently, newly elected Governor John Hunn sent to the Senate the name of Philip Q. Churchman for the position, and the appointment of Churchman was confirmed by the Senate.

Unwilling to concede Churchman's appointment, Cochran then filed suit in Superior Court, questioning whether an appointee to the office of the Judge of the Municipal Court must be confirmed by the Senate. The Superior Court answered in the affirmative. On appeal to the Supreme Court, however, the lower court was reversed and the seat was given to Cochran, on the ground that "[t]he judgeship of Municipal Court [was] a municipal office and not within the Constitutional provisions for confirmation of appointments by the Governor where the salary was $500 or more yearly." During the pendency of the litigation, Churchman had performed the duties of the office. Judge Cochran assumed the position in his place in January of 1902 and served until 1912. At that time Churchman was re-appointed as Chief Judge, in which capacity he served until 1919.

In 1920, Daniel O. Hastings assumed the position of Chief Judge. He resigned in 1928 to accept an appointment as United States senator, replacing Senator Coleman du Pont who was in ill health, and served in that position until 1935.

Following Judge Hastings' resignation, John Faucett Lynn served as chief judge for twelve years, from 1928 to 1940, followed in turn by Henry R. Isaacs. Chief Judge Isaacs resigned in 1946; subsequently convicted of embezzling clients' funds, he served a prison term.

The next Chief Judge was Thomas Herlihy, Jr. Elected Mayor of Wilmington in June of 1945, he resigned that post to take the Municipal Court judgeship at Governor Walter W. Bacon's request. His assignment: to & "clean up Municipal Court."

At the time of his appointment in April of 1946, his name was not submitted to the State Senate for confirmation. When Governor J. Caleb Boggs re-appointed him, however, the question arose as to whether his nomination should be confirmed by the Senate. Opinions differed; to put an end to the matter, Governor Boggs sent Judge Herlihy's name to the Senate where the appointment was confirmed. In 1969, with a charge to revamp and reorganize the Municipal Court into an efficient judicial system, Alfred Fraczkowski was appointed as a first full time Judge of the Municipal Court. He was appointed Chief judge of the Court in 1970. He held this appointment until May 1, 1998 when he was appointed an Associate Judge of the Court of Common Pleas as a result of the merger of the Municipal Court into the Court of Common Pleas.

Deputy Judges

At the turn of the century, the legislature authorized the appointment of a second judge, known as the Deputy Judge, to the Municipal Court bench. The Deputy Judge was to be appointed to a term of four years by the associate judge of the Superior Court and was to be resident in New Castle County.

Although a comprehensive review of each Deputy Judge's tenure is not possible, some were of particular note, such as Aaron Finger, the first Jewish member of the Delaware bar, who later became a founding partner of Richards, Layton & Finger. Other judges were memorable for specific personal characteristics. For example, Judge John Lynn, who served from 1921 to 1928, had a slight cast to his eye. An elderly woman brought into Municipal Court before Judge Lynn had Philip Garrett, who shared Judge Lynn's ocular characteristic, to represent her. She lost her case. When asked how she had made out, she reportedly replied she had not made out, but "what can you expect of a cockeyed judge and a cockeyed lawyer?"

Another Deputy Judge of interest was Edmund S. Hellings, who served from 1943 to 1961. Famous for being very soft-spoken, he had a nickname among the defendants who appeared before him - "Silent Death", sometimes "Whispering Death." The story goes that Judge Hellings whispered his sentence: "Fine, ten dollars." The unhearing defendant politely said, "I'm sorry, Your Honor, what is the fine?" Judge Hellings: "Fine, twenty dollars." The defendant still did not hear the amount so he loudly asked his lawyer to ask for the amount. When the lawyer did, Judge Hellings replied: "Fine, forty dollars."

Associate Judges

In 1953 the General Assembly abolished the title of Deputy Judge and created two Associate Judge positions (increased to three in 1969) of equal rank and salary, to be held by individuals of opposite political parties, nominated by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. The change of status was to go into effect upon the end of the term or the resignation or death of the two Municipal Court judges then in office. Chief Judge Thomas Herlihy, Jr., a Republican, had a second term that extended until 1970. Deputy Judge Edmund S. Hellings, also a Republican, whose term would end February 28, 1961, would have to be replaced by a Democrat.

He was succeeded by Sidney Clark, who, having served as Assistant City Solicitor, was appointed Associate Judge by Governor Elbert N. Carvel in 1961. The first African-American judge in Delaware, he resigned from the bench in 1966.

The other Associate Judges of the Municipal Court included Leonard L. Williams who served as an Associate Judge from 1966 until the merger of the Court with the Court of Common Pleas in 1998. He was the last part-time judge to serve in the Court. Carl Goldstein was appointed an Associate Judge in 1970 and continued until his appointment as a Judge in the Superior Court in 1991. That same year, Alex J. Smalls was appointed to succeed him, serving with the Court for two years until appointed as a Judge in the Court of Common Pleas. In 1994, he was succeeded by William L. Chapman, Jr., who filled that position until his nomination and confirmation as a Family Court Judge in 1995. John K. Welch was then appointed an Associate Judge in 1996 and continued in that position until the merger of the Court into the Court of Common Pleas when he became an Associate Judge of that Court.

Developments and Changes in the Court

Judge Herlihy, in particular, put into effect a number of innovative programs and established more professional procedures. One of his first moves was to abolish segregated seating in the courtroom. Although Daniel O. Hastings stated in his book Delaware Politics that segregation had ended in the Municipal Court when he was judge, Judge Herlihy found that segregated seating was in effect in 1946. A police officer stood at the entrance to the courtroom directing the public to one side or the other depending on their race. Judge Herlihy put a stop to this practice.

Other procedures were initiated or formalized, such as informing defendants of their rights, insisting on adherence to rules of evidence and obtaining volunteer counsel for indigent persons accused of serious crimes long before the United States Supreme Court ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).

A Housing Court and a Traffic Court were also established. In cooperation with the Delaware Safety Council and the Wilmington Police Department, Municipal Court developed a Traffic School for traffic offenders, inspiring awards from the National Safety Council.

Sentencing alternatives were explored. Municipal Court set up a probation system; referrals for treatment of mentally ill and alcoholic offenders began. Municipal Court took part, with the other courts in New Castle County, in the Delaware Trial Bail Project, a demonstration bail project in which certain first offenders could be freed on their own recognizance. Later this procedure became state law.

Like other courts, Municipal Court has had to face problems due to overcrowded facilities. Starting in 1883, sessions of the new Municipal Court were held in City Hall, the building now known as Old Town hall, located on Market Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets. The building also housed the offices of the Mayor, the Clerk of City Council and the Police Department as well as the city prison. There was a need for a new City Hall to accommodate the scattered city offices and services. Since the County Building, located on what is now Rodney Square, was overcrowded, the construction of a joint city and county building was proposed. Both City Council and the Levy Court agreed to the plan and each secured from the General Assembly permission to erect the building and to borrow the money necessary to build it, $600,000 for the Levy Court and $900,000 for City Council. The "Public Building," as it became known, standing on King Street between Tenth and Eleventh Streets, was the result.

From the start, the space assigned to Municipal Court in the Public Building was inconvenient. The public could not enter the courtroom from King Street but had to climb the stairs to the third floor from the French Street entrance. Prisoners brought up from the cells below were crowded into a small holding room. Defense lawyers had little space to interview their clients. The space allotted to the office staff was crowded, and the staff was handicapped further by persons regularly passing through on their way to the courtroom. From time to time Municipal Court used City Council Chambers for a courtroom as the need arose, sometimes holding two court sessions simultaneously.

In the 1970's, the court facilities were drastically changed. Two courtrooms were designed and constructed in the Public Building. Thereafter, further redesign was made in the Court when the Daniel L. Herrmann Courthouse was reconstructed.

A particularly demanding period of Municipal Court's history began with the civil disorders and riots of 1967 and 1968. The Governor declared an emergency, which brought into operation emergency legislation, under which the Court saw a dramatic increase in the number of arrests.

Sessions of the Court lasted well into the night for the first weeks of each episode of riots. Lawyers voluntarily came to the Court to assist the Public Defender's office and to be sworn in as additional prosecutors. At the height of the disturbances two Superior Court judges assisted the Municipal Court. Members of the Public Defender's office or bail project officers interviewed every person brought before the Court. Private agencies, members of the Council of Churches, the Delaware Conference of Christians and Jews and other authorized volunteers were on hand, making telephone calls to defendants' families, arranging for bail and taking released persons home. Special hearings were held on modifications of bail.

With the assistance of other judges and volunteers from the community, the Municipal Court rose to the occasion and met the challenge.

From 1972 until the Court was merged with the Court of Common Pleas in 1998, the Municipal Court developed procedures which enhanced the operation of the Judicial System. A case numbering system was developed based upon the year, the month and the particular case number. This numbering system was later adopted throughout the State. The Court developed a bail bond form, which detailed all the obligations of the defendant and the bail bondsman, and the form, with various refinements, was adopted for use throughout the State. A pretrial release system was developed by the Court in conjunction with the Probation/Parole Department. By 1975, the Court was able to assure that any bail set on a defendant was the result of a detailed social and criminal background having been checked. The procedure resulted in the lowering of bail in many cases and increased granting of unsecured bail.

The Court established a Court Commissioner system so that the City of Wilmington had a judicial officer available on a 24-hour basis and on all weekends. A refined case scheduling system was developed which permitted having separate court sessions devoted to specific types of cases during the course of each week. The system allowed for more efficient use of all court resources. During the period from 1970 to 1975, the Court adopted a procedure which insured that any charge filed in the Municipal Court was based upon the Delaware State Code and only those offenses which were specifically required to be brought under the Wilmington City Code were so charged.

The resources of the Court were again tested and found to be fully sufficient when the Court was faced with a deluge of cases resulting from mass arrests in the Wilmington public school teachers' strike, and again when mass arrests were made of protesters who held rallies in front of a women's health clinic in Wilmington protesting abortion services which were provided at the clinic. In both instances the Court was able to hear and resolve all the cases without disrupting the scheduling of other cases.

In conjunction with the office of the Wilmington City Solicitor, the Court developed a Citizens Dispute Resolution Program which allowed for the arbitration and resolution of minor criminal matters, involving generally neighborhood disputes, in a manner which permitted the parties involved not to end up with a record of a criminal conviction.

The Municipal Court's history concluded with a fitting closing ceremony on April 30, 1998 when the last session was held prior to the Court being merged with the Court of Common Pleas for the State of Delaware on May 1, 1998.