Posted: Dec. 2, 2014


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

What a class of candidates it was that applied about a year ago to be Delaware's next chief justice.

Leo Strine Jr. Jim Vaughn Jr. Jan Jurden. Carolyn Berger.

It has taken all this time and some hard feelings along the way, but Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, has managed to find something in the way of an upgrade for just about all of them.

Strine, who was the chancellor on the Court of Chancery, the famous forum for corporate law, got the prize appointment to the Supreme Court's center seat. Vaughn, who was the Superior Court president judge, joined Strine on the court about a month ago.

Now it is Jurden's turn. A Superior Court judge since 2001, she was nominated by Markell on Monday to replace Vaughn as the president judge on the state's largest court with a wide-ranging docket of criminal and civil cases.

Jurden's appointment will be up for confirmation by the state Senate on Dec. 16.

That leaves Berger, who had been a justice for 20 years. Miffed at being passed over for chief justice, she picked up her pension and went home.

It is all quite enough for a judicial-style nursery rhyme.


This little candidate went to chief justice.

This one got a Supreme Court seat of his own.

This one was named the president judge.

But this little candidate went wee-wee-wee-wee

All the way home.

It has been a test for Markell. He has spent the last year dealing with a flurry of high-level judicial appointments amid a chorus of demanding constituencies.

He took care of the corporate bar, an essential element of the state's economy and its prestige in legal circles, by making Strine the new chief justice and installing a couple of corporate practitioners with Andy Bouchard as the new chancellor and Karen Valihura as a new justice.

He accommodated the state's geographical tribalism by giving a Supreme Court seat to Kent County with Vaughn.

Markell's choice of Jurden for president judge is a trailblazing appointment that puts her a confirmation vote away from becoming the first woman to lead one of the state's three major courts, namely the Supreme Court, the Court of Chancery and the Superior Court.

Jurden would join a tiny prestigious sorority of the women who ascended to the highest reaches of the state's judiciary, along with Berger and Valihura as justices. Close to them is Chandlee Johnson Kuhn, the Family Court chief judge.

Jurden would also be the first gay judge to lead a court, or at least the first one people know of.

Amid the diversity in geography, gender and sexual orientation, the state judiciary has yet to have someone from the minority community sit on either the Supreme Court or the Court of Chancery, the two top benches. With so many of the 10 judgeships on those courts recently filled by new 12-year appointments, it could be a while.

"That's a real rub. I can't say the governor hasn't done a decent job, but he could do more," said Margaret Rose Henry, the Senate's Democratic majority whip who is not only the chamber's only African-American member but has chaired the Judiciary Committee.

The Senate session will not be routine, even though Jurden -- praised by the governor as "an experienced and accomplished jurist who has served with distinction" -- was previously confirmed and re-confirmed.

For one thing, it is the first session since the election, so the Senate will have to go through the procedures for swearing in its new and re-elected members and organizing itself, and for another, it could turn into a sounding board with unpredictable ramifications. There is strong support for Jurden but also some doubts.

Patti Blevins, who is about to begin her second term as the Senate's Democratic president pro tem, called Jurden's appointment a good one.

"With her strong work ethic and her intellect, she is a strong leader, and she will have the respect of everybody on the court and bring it together the way Justice Vaughn did. I'll support Jan and vote to confirm her," Blevins said.

Henry, the majority whip, was equally positive, saying, "I could have seen her as the chief justice easily. I think she is an excellent choice and should be confirmed easily."

Gary Simpson, the Republican minority leader, however, sees the nomination as a vehicle for questioning Kent County's representation on the Superior Court. Simpson is from Milford, the little city that spans Kent County and Sussex County.

With Vaughn gone from the Superior Court, there are only two judges from Kent County on the 21-member bench, although the opening created by Vaughn's departure could restore a third judge to Kent County.

Jurden is from New Castle County, which has the most population and the most judges. The current court breakdown: 14 judges sitting in New Castle County, two judges sitting in Kent County, four judges sitting in Sussex County, and one vacancy.

Simpson also says he has heard public misgivings about Jurden, who found herself engulfed in a media frenzy earlier this year because of a misimpression arising from a child sex-abuse case involving Robert H. Richards IV, the offspring of a long line of respected lawyers and the du Pont family, and his four-year-old daughter.

In 2009 Jurden sentenced Richards to intense probation, not prison. Jurden was mistakenly believed to say Richards would "not fare well" in prison, but those words were spoken by the defense attorney and simply noted by Jurden, and the sentence for Richards, who was described as being developmentally disabled, was suggested by the prosecution and the defense.

"I need to do a little more studying of the nomination. There are concerns that have been expressed to me," Simpson said.

The Senate session will also be the last for Matt Denn, the Democratic lieutenant governor who will give up presiding there, now that he is the newly elected attorney general.

Denn and Jurden were once partners together at Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, until they both left within months of each other, Denn to become the counsel to Ruth Ann Minner after she was elected the Democratic governor in 2000 and Jurden as Minner's first new judicial appointee.

So the Senate session reunites Denn and Jurden as a crossroads for each. Not that anyone in a state this small would be surprised at such a connection.