Posted: Dec. 20, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

In a surprise switch, Chief Magistrate Patricia Walther Griffin is giving up her post to become the state court administrator, leaving the Justice of the Peace Courts for an assignment that will make her Chief Justice Myron T. Steele's top aide in putting his own mark on Delaware's legal system.

Griffin will change jobs Feb. 7, going from setting policy to implementing policy and from a 250-person staff at the magistrate courts to 70 people at the Administrative Office of the Courts.

It is a rare move that looks to be something of a comedown, but it is not unlike what John H. Sununu did when he went from being New Hampshire's governor to the chief of staff for the first President George Bush in 1989, swapping a spot on the periphery for one at the center.

Nor is there any doubt Griffin will be where it counts, not when Steele says of her, "She's the choice. She gratifyingly said yes. She's going to be supported by me and I think the other justices."

The announcement comes seven months into Steele's 12-year term and appears to signal his readiness to refashion the courts.

Even Griffin herself represents a new direction. As the chief magistrate since 1993 and a Sussex County lawyer in practice with her husband before that, she knows the idiosyncratic ways of the Delaware bench and bar, and she replaces a non-lawyer administrator who came from out of state and went back there.

"I was not interested in someone with a fancy resume from somewhere else," Steele said.

Griffin's willingness to switch jobs provides an opportunity not only for Steele but for the governor who appointed him. The naming of the next chief magistrate belongs to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, who already has appointed the presiding judge on three of the state's six courts.

Minner, a Democrat elected to her second term last month, has appointed Steele as well as Superior Court President Judge James T. Vaughn Jr. and Family Court Chief Judge Chandlee Johnson Kuhn.

Once Griffin is replaced, the only leading judges without Minner's imprint will be the Court of Chancery's Chancellor William B. Chandler III, whose term lasts until 2009, and Court of Common Pleas' Chief Judge Alex J. Smalls, who comes up for reappointment next year.

The chief magistrate is the only judge who does not serve a 12-year term but instead is appointed for four years for a first term and six years for any subsequent term. Like all judges, the chief magistrate must be confirmed by the state Senate.

Although state law requires political balance on the courts, the chief magistrate is an exception who can be either a Democrat or a Republican, according to Joseph C. Schoell, the governor's legal counsel. Griffin is a Democrat, and chances are she will be replaced by one, too, because both the governor and the Senate majority are Democratic.

Griffin will get a raise in her new job but perhaps not as large as one she would get by staying where she is. Currently she is paid $104,100 a year, while the administrator's salary is $111,800 a year, but the Delaware Compensation Commission, which meets every four years to recommend new pay scales for top state officials, is proposing the chief magistrate be paid $117,000 next year.

Griffin brings a background in administration to her new assignment. A 1979 graduate of Duke University and 1983 graduate of Washington & Lee University law school, she was a senior staff attorney in the federal administrative office of the courts and the federal public defender's system. She also was an assistant dean for the Washington & Lee law school and University of North Carolina law school.

Griffin's current term as chief magistrate was set to expire in June.

"I like administration. I like to make things run smoothly," Griffin said. "I have loved being with the J.P. Courts, but this was an opportunity, and the timing was right for a new challenge."

Griffin appears to be a consensus choice as administrator. Since July, the courts have had an acting administrator in Carl Schnee, a former U.S. attorney who was once Steele's law partner. Schnee accepted Steele's request to oversee the courts for no more than six months and conduct a search for a new administrator. In interview after interview with court personnel, Griffin was mentioned as a prime candidate, Steele said.

It cannot hurt that Griffin shares Steele's perspective on the need for a homegrown administrator. "I've been with the J.P. Courts for 11 years, and I'll be in Delaware for the rest of my life," Griffin said.

It also could not have hurt that Griffin, who lives in Lewes, is from downstate and contributes to what appears to be a downstate flavoring of the courts. Minner, who comes from Milford, not only has elevated Steele and Vaughn, a pair of her fellow Kent County Democrats, but also moved Henry duPont Ridgely, a Kent County Republican, from Superior Court president judge to Supreme Court justice.

Now there will be Griffin, too. "Did you notice we'd have another downstate person?" Steele quipped.

Not to mention there is still a new chief magistrate to come . . .