What is Superior Court?—Our History
Historically, jurisdiction for criminal cases in the State of Delaware was divided between the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which heard all cases punishable by death, and the Court of General Sessions, which heard all other criminal cases which were not exclusively heard by the Justice of the Peace Courts. The Justice of the Peace Courts heard the misdemeanor cases that the legislature determined by statute should be held in those courts. The Delaware Constitution of 1831 created a Superior Court which mostly heard cases of a civil nature. Constitutional amendments in 1951 abolished the Courts of Oyer and Terminer and of General Sessions, and transferred their functions to the Superior Court. With some equitable and statutory exceptions, Superior Court now has general jurisdiction over all criminal and civil cases. While most violations and misdemeanor cases are heard in Justice of the Peace Courts, Alderman's Courts, or the Court of Common Pleas, and most criminal cases involving juveniles are heard in Family Court, Superior Court is the only Court in the State where a conviction can be entered on a felony charge. Superior Court also has jurisdiction to act as an intermediate level appellate court in some instances.
Who's Who in Superior Court?—The Participants
There are many people who take part in a criminal case in Superior Court. Some of the ones present in the courtroom include the judge, the court reporter, the court clerk, and the bailiff. Other key figures include the witnesses, the jurors, the defendant, and the attorneys. There are also many participants who act behind the scenes to try to ensure that the criminal case process is as effective as possible. The following are some of the many people you may see working at Superior Court:
The Hearing Officer
In most instances, this will be a Judge of Superior Court. Each judge is nominated by the governor, and confirmed by the Senate, to serve twelve year terms. The judge is the central figure in the courtroom, and allows both sides of a case to present their versions of the facts, pursuant to established rules of evidence and procedure. In a trial, a judge oversees the proceedings and makes decisions on any legal disputes that may arise. If the trial is held without a jury, the judge will also make decisions regarding any factual disputes. The Court Commissioner also plays an integral part in the courtroom, making decisions in cases prior to a final resolution of criminal charges. In some cases, with the consent of both sides, the Commissioner will also accept the entry of final dispositions in cases. Superior Court also has Masters who perform many judicial functions, including making determinations on post-conviction motions and holding civil contempt of court hearings. These hearing officers are supported by judicial secretaries and law clerks who perform scheduling, legal research, and many other functions to keep the judicial chambers running smoothly and effectively.
A court officer entrusted to maintain order in the courtroom. Acting as the custodian of the jury, if there is one, the bailiff also is responsible for making certain that the courtroom is safe and secure, so that a case may proceed without distraction or interruption. Bailiffs also act to check that all participants necessary for a case are present.
The Court Reporter
The reporter acts to record the proceedings in Superior Court. This making of a record is an important part of the judicial process, as it allows others, who were not present in the courtroom, to understand what happened in each case, and to possibly make decisions on the basis of that record. Appeals, and motions after a final decision in a case often rely upon a transcript of the record prepared by the court reporter's office.
The Court Clerk
The courtroom clerk administers oaths to witnesses and jurors, records selected activities for official case file records, and acts as the custodian for all case exhibits. The principal clerk of Superior Court is the Prothonotary, and it is not uncommon for other participants in a criminal case to refer to the court clerk as the prothonotary. The Prothonotary oversees not only the courtroom clerks, but also an office of clerks who perform such functions as accepting and releasing bail, preparing commitments of defendants to the custody of the Department of Corrections, and releases. The Prothonotary's Office also accepts motions, indictments, and other paperwork filed with the Court, prepares judicial orders at the request of the Court, and acts to ensure that judicial orders have been followed.
The Investigative Services Officer
The Investigative Services Officer is the closest the Court has to a true investigator. The Investigative Services Office has a number of investigators and support staff who focus their investigative powers on the backgrounds of people being sentenced in Superior Court, and on the harm to victims in criminal cases. Superior Court follows sentencing guidelines when determining the sentence of a defendant who has been found guilty, or entered a guilty plea. These guidelines rely upon the hearing officer`s familiarity regarding such things as a defendant`s past criminal history. The Investigative Services Office makes certain that the judge can make an informed decision by providing this information. Restitution amounts are often determined and verified by the Investigative Services Office.
Many of the people who enter the courthouse daily, are offered the hospitality of the Court by the Office of Jury Services. This busy office sends out jury notices and questionnaires, and hosts jurors during their stay at Superior Court. Besides the ability to vote, the ability to serve on a jury is one of the most democratic activities a citizen can perform. The jury makes the important decisions of fact that determine life, liberty, and property issues for defendants, and for victims of crimes, on an individual, case-by-case basis. The Jury Services Office focuses upon making certain that citizens have the opportunity to retain the right to make these decisions.
When our country was founded, the framers of our constitution included the concept of grand juries and jury trials for a very specific purpose. The purpose was to prevent the government that they were starting from becoming as oppressive as the one that they left. In Delaware, a defendant has a right to be indicted by the grand jury in a felony case, and a right to a jury trial. These rights help to protect each of us from a government that might otherwise arbitrarily and maliciously prosecute cases without the individuals of the community being directly involved. The members of the Grand Jury in Delaware hear evidence presented by the Attorney General's Office to determine whether there is probable cause (having more evidence for than against) that a person committed a crime. If the Grand Jury finds probable cause, they return the indictment as a true bill, and if they find that probable cause does not exist, they may mark it as ignored. There is a separate Grand Jury for each county, and the grand juries are made up of one representative each from a number of different districts within that county to ensure that all regions of a county are adequately represented. The petit jury is a body of citizens, normally 12, who are selected and brought before a judge, and sworn to try and make a determination by verdict as to whether or not a defendant is guilty or not guilty of crimes charged against him or her.
By their admission to the Bar of the State of Delaware, attorneys are officers of the court, and are required to follow the rules of the court, and the rules of professional conduct. Many of the Delaware attorneys involved in criminal cases in Delaware are employees of the State. In the vast majority of criminal cases in Superior Court, the State is represented by the Attorney General's Office. Deputy Attorneys General prosecute cases, present evidence to the Grand Jury, and sometimes bring appeals from lower courts to Superior Court. While there are many private defense attorneys who represent clients in Superior Court, there are many defendants who cannot afford the services of defense counsel. The Office of the Public Defender provides Assistant Public Defenders to defendants who can show that they do not have the financial means to provide for their own defense. In some cases, there is a conflict for one reason or another, in the representation of a defendant by the Public Defender's Office. When that happens, the Court will appoint a private attorney on a temporary basis for a determination of that defendant's case.
Each county has a Sheriff's Office, which has a number of responsibilities. In criminal cases, the Sheriff performs two major functions. They provide in-person service of subpoenas upon defendants and witnesses, and they bring before the Court those people who have had a capias issued against them by the Court. A capias is a civil writ which requests that someone be brought to the Sheriff, so that the Sheriff's Office can bring the person before a hearing officer of the Court. At the return of the capias, the person being brought before the Court is required to explain to the hearing officer any number of things as the situation demands, such as: why they did not come to a court proceeding when they were subpoenaed to do so, or why they did not sign up with the probation office as ordered, or as a material witness in a case, why they shouldn't be held on bail until they get an opportunity to testify in a case.
Non-Judicial Participants. There are a large number of other members of the criminal justice system who play a role in making the Court function correctly or guarantee that the orders of the court are followed. Among them are:
Department of Corrections Transportation Officers
The officers bring incarcerated defendants to and from the prisons, and supervise the defendants during their stay.
These Capitol Police officers provide security for the courthouses, and screen visitors to the courts for weapons and contraband.
Among the many Departments and Agencies that enforce the orders of the Court are: Department of Correction, Probation and Parole Office, TASC, Sodat, Brandywine Counseling, Inc., and the Community and Restorative Justice Project.
Bail Bonds Companies
While private citizens can post bail, often the amount of bail required to release a defendant during their case is more than a defendant and his or her family can afford. Bail Bond Companies are private companies which work with insurance companies to provide bail for people who contract with them for that service.