Superior Court Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2014
Established under the Constitution of 1831, the Superior Court of Delaware turned 183 years old during Fiscal Year 2014. We are proud of our rich heritage, from the time of the Civil War to the ever changing time of the present. Our judicial officers and staff are among the best to be found in any court, anywhere. The judicial officers work hard to maintain our standards of legal excellence in both civil and criminal cases. Our staff works hard to assist the Judges, and our clientele, to provide them with excellent customer service.
As in any court, there are areas of Superior Court's that could be more efficient-the areas that exist in the "but we've always done it that way" zone. Consistency in processes between the three counties is one of these areas. While the three counties do the same processes, they can vary in the means by which the processes are executed. In FY14, we began a review of the multitude of codes used for docketing criminal cases. At that time, the counties did not use the same code for the same docket entries. Usually this happens because a county handles a certain business processes differently from the others. Not that the code used is wrong; it did work for them. But perhaps one of the other counties had a better, more efficient way to code.
All three counties were represented at the code review by their in-house subject matter experts. It was a big job, and it took time and effort. During the negotiations, there was agreement to drop codes that duplicated a court action, replace multiple codes with just one code that worked for everyone, or trade in two codes for one more efficiency. When the dust settled, all who participated were exhausted, but proud of the group effort. With far fewer codes, docketing is easier and more efficient. The project's success is a result of the three counties working together for the good of the Court, and a willingness to make the necessary changes.
Superior Court's list of judges seems to be in flux from year to year. On May 3, 2014 the Honorable Charles H. Toliver IV officially retired from the Superior Court bench after 24 years. Judge Toliver leaves us to go into private practice.
Second, the Honorable Ferris T. Wharton, was appointed by Governor Markell to the Superior Court bench, and began service, on June 5, 2014. Judge Wharton came to the Court from the Office of the Public Defender, where he held the position of Assistant Public Defender. Prior to that, Judge Wharton served with distinction in the Delaware Department of Justice.
Third, and last, change came to our bench in an entirely different way. This change is the result of some innovative thinking by the Court regarding our full-time positions. Beginning in Fiscal Year 2013, it became more and more apparent that the Superior Court in Sussex County needed extra help. Specifically, help was needed in the criminal division of the Court. As additional full-time positions are not a possibility due to the State's fiscal issues, the Court had to find another way to help Sussex County.
The needed assistance came to Sussex County via New Castle County, which has the greater number of staff than the other two counties. Three vacant New Castle County staff positions were transferred to the Sussex County Prothonotary's criminal division. Now there are three extra case managers to assist with the processing of Sussex's criminal caseload. As a result, the three judges in Sussex County then needed assistance with the criminal caseload.
This situation did not lend itself to the former solution. We have a full complement of judges, and all our judges serve in the county in which they live. However, there is one judge with residences in both New Castle and Sussex Counties. That Judge is the Honorable Jane M. Brady. When the proposition of a transfer to Sussex was made to the Judge, she agreed to help out. Judge Brady keeps her New Castle County calendar of civil cases until it winds down. Therefore, the judge maintains her office in the NCC Courthouse, and her new one in the Sussex County Courthouse. It seems to be working for her and for the Court.
As a Court of general jurisdiction, Superior Court handles both civil and criminal cases. The civil and criminal workload varies from year to year. Of interest this year are the statewide civil numbers, which show that filings and pending cases are higher than in FY13. In addition, the criminal pending case numbers statewide are lower than in FY13.
FY14 STATEWIDE STATISTICS
The potential Murder First Degree trials number 43 statewide. Our Violation of Probation (VOP) cases statewide number 5,376 Filings; 4,310 Dispositions; and 748 cases with pending charges.
Jurors are summoned by this Court for service in Superior Court's civil and criminal trials in all three counties. In addition, the jurors we summon also serve in the Court of Common Pleas for civil trials, and in the Justice of the Peace Court for Landlord-Tenant trials. This year 138,372 jurors were summoned for all three counties, and 32,725 jurors appeared for service at the New Castle, Kent and Sussex Court Houses.
These civic-minded citizens who appear help the courts dispose of cases whether they served as trial jurors or not. Many civil and criminal trials have been disposed of before trial because we had the judges, the jurors and the courtrooms available for jury selection. When the Court is able to dispose a case without a trial, we save money for the State and its tax payers.
Trials, however, are not the only way of disposing cases. Our Problem Solving Courts exist to help dispose of cases in the three counties. Not only that, but also, these Courts help people who are in the criminal justice system due to other issues in their lives-be it drugs and alcohol, mental illness, post traumatic stress disorder, or physical health issues.
Seventeen years ago, Superior Court's Drug Court became the first statewide Drug Court in the United States. This year, the statewide Superior Court Diversion Drug Court had 512 entries, 153 terminations and 288 graduates. Pursuant to a special part-time appointment, retired Superior Court Judge Jerome O. Herlihy currently presides over the New Castle County Drug Court.
New Castle County's Reentry Court targets repeat offenders who have been incarcerated at least one year and have a community service obligation as a condition of their release. At the end of FY14, there were 53 entries, 12 successful graduates, and 23 participants were discharged from the program as Unimproved. The remaining defendants in the NCC program are currently awaiting a violation of probation hearing, are actively attending Reentry court status conferences, and/or awaiting their probation sentence to begin in order to attend the regular status conferences. Reentry Court is presided over by Judge Charles E. Butler and Judge Vivian L. Medinilla.
Instituted in 2008, Superior Court's Mental Health Court (MHC) resides in New Castle, Kent, and Sussex Counties. This collaborative mental health court project is designed to identify persons involved in the criminal justice system as a result of serious mental health issues. It provides them with intensive services and support to guide them to recovery and self sufficiency. It is an alternative to repeated incarceration for violations of probation or commission of new offenses. Judge Jan Jurden presides in New Castle County, Judge Robert Young in Kent, and Resident Judge T. Henley Graves in Sussex.
Through a grant from the Office on Violence against Women (OVW), funding became available to educate the MHC's defendants who are victims of domestic violence. The OVW funding also includes the Court of Common Pleas' Trauma Informed Court which serves victims of domestic violence. Statewide for Superior Court this year, there were 570 participants, 181 graduations, 34 neutral terminations, and 81 terminations.
The Veterans Treatment Court was initiated as a pilot project in Kent County in February 2011. Since that time, Resident Judge William L. Witham Jr., a former member of the armed services, has presided over this Court. Sussex County Veterans are referred to Kent County. New Castle County's VTC began on January 2, 2013. Judge Jan R. Jurden, also a former member of the armed services, presides over this Court. The program is designed to assist justice-involved veterans with mental health and substance abuse issues to obtain necessary services and reduce recidivism.
New this year, is the volunteer Peer Mentor Program launched to enhance the Veterans Court. The volunteers, who are also Veterans, help court participants get to appointments, and other steps. Because the mentors are Veterans, they understand the stress of military life and can offer assistance and support through the recovery phase of the Court participants.
Statewide VTC numbers for FY 14: 121 participants, 91 graduates, 3 neutral terminations, 6 terminations, and 79 graduations.
Programs to assist disposition of Civil cases are also available to our constituents. This year, through our Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation program, 1,823 mediations were filed, statewide. The ongoing Project Rightful Owner held 18 hearings this year, processed 15 orders and disbursed $305,059.11. Total dollars disbursed since the beginning of this project is $6,014,954.49. The Court's Complex Commercial Litigation Division, also assists in the disposition of civil cases. Here, cases must include a claim asserted by any party (direct or declaratory judgment) with an amount in controversy of $1 Million or more (designated in the pleadings for either jury or non-jury trials). Or, cases that involve an exclusive choice of court agreement or a judgment resulting from an exclusive choice of court agreement, or is so designated by the President Judge, also qualify for assignment to the CCLD.
The Notifind system is an important part of a judiciary-wide initiative for Living Disaster Recovery Planning/Continuity of Operations Planning. Superior Court Webmaster, Margaret Derrickson, completed the task of loading all of Superior Court staff's necessary data into the system. All the information sent to Margaret was input into the system, including each one's preference for receiving emergency notices via e-mail, home phone, or cell phone. With the winter we experienced in FY14, Notifind was helpful. A certain amount of tweaking is always necessary when a new system goes into production, and it was true with this project. But each time it was used, the system improved through input from judicial officer, court administrators, and staff. Notifind also serves the judiciary as an emergency notification system. Should a disaster hit Delaware, all judges and staff would receive notice and instructions.
Superior Court's Website reflects our goal of providing excellent service to the public and to the legal community. Our innovative iCourtClerk™ continues to grow in number of queries from the public, and from outside criminal justice agencies seeking information. In FY14, over 1,912 public queries received a response, which is a 33.4% increase over last fiscal year. Attorney, law firm library, Lexis, Westlaw and business queries continue as a significant number of the total inquires. Interestingly enough, over 16% of our users take the time to reply with a 'Thank you,' and express how timely the answers are.
Queries that were non-iCourtClerk™ numbered 1,108 this year, a 34.4% query increase regarding jury service, forms, fees, records, procedures, ADR, and orders and opinions, among other requests. This year, 659 orders and opinions were processed. Superior Court continues to publish the greatest number of orders and opinions available for free public access.
The Listserv information service is ever expanding. During this year, 572 new members (an 18% increase) signed up to receive information. Currently, 19 separate Listservs are maintained, with 3,768 members. The public service provided 192 instant notifications to its members for a 17% increase. Members include attorneys, state officials, insurance companies, research utilities, and universities.
Our Intranet-only document database is maintained and updated on a regular basis. This database is only for those who work in Superior Court. It holds directives, orders, plans, memos, and information about each department, e-payment, jobs, benefits, and other useful links for searching. It was 1998 when the first edition of Hearsay, the Court's newsletter, was published. We have editions from 1998 to 2014 digitally saved on the Intranet.
The future of Superior Court is to move our civil and criminal cases in an expedient, efficient manner, while maintaining fairness in the courtrooms. It is vital that the people who come to our court feel as though they were treated fairly and respectfully when they leave. If not, then the communities we serve get a negative opinion of the Court, which then reflects badly on the Judiciary as a whole.
Case processing 183 years ago consisted of a pen and paper, and there were probably the same complaints from attorneys and the town folk regarding the timeliness of the outcome of their cases. People are the same, no matter whether they live in the 19th or 21st century. In this century, however, technology changes at a very swift place. As soon as the latest cutting-edge software, or hardware, is on the market it is already outdated.
This Court embraced technology early on. In 1991, Superior Court had one of the only statewide case management and e-file systems in the nation, the system called the Complex Litigation Automated Docket (CLAD). CLAD was a success for the Court for its time. However, in 2003, and CLAD cases were converted to LexisNexis™ (now File & ServeXpress™). This is the system we use today. However, it is strictly for civil cases.
Criminal case e-filing is not yet available to Superior Court, but it is a goal for us and the other trial courts. Superior Court does have an Automated Sentencing Order Program or, as we call it, ASOP. The ASOP application enables the court to issue sentencing orders simultaneously with a judge's pronouncement. Sentencing data is electronically filed and transferred within minutes to prisons and other agencies and criminal histories also are updated for future court proceedings. It used to take days to disseminate the information to all criminal justice agencies. Also, ASOP allows defendants to receive a complete copy of their sentencing order before they leave the courtroom.
However, ASOP first arrived on the scene in March of 2000. It is old, outdated technology. We cannot input any new sentencing forms into it, and we have to be careful of inputting any new coding to prevent the program from crashing. Keeping ASOP alive is our first priority in our FY15 budget, as we lack the necessary funding in the Court's budget line.
Superior Court is committed to the Community, and to our people, in all three counties, to provide for a safe environment in which they are treated with fairness and respect. In FY 13, the Courts used their security funds to secure our state's courthouses and our people. For FY14 we are committed to providing timely and efficient case processing for our civil and criminal cases and to finding the means to make this happen.
— President Judge James T. Vaughn Jr. —