Posted: Dec. 17, 2014


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Delaware State Senate is not known for profiles in courage.

For the dreaded "desk drawer veto," a defunct practice that let committee chairs kill bills at will? Yes. For "taking a walk" to avoid a tough vote? Yes. For shameless horse-trading, grandstanding, self-aggrandizement and all-around boorishness? Yes.

Not on this day. Not on Tuesday, December 16, 2014.

On this day in Dover, the state Senate righted a great wrong. It confirmed Jan Jurden as the president judge of the Superior Court.

Eight months ago, this vote was unthinkable. Jurden, a judge since 2001, was consumed in hysteria, which spread on the Internet far beyond the state's borders to include death threats, because of the disturbing child sex-abuse case involving Robert H. Richards IV and his daughter, a toddler.

Richards is the offspring of not one, but two famous Delaware families. He comes from a lineage of prominent lawyers, including the founder of the venerable law firm of Richards Layton & Finger, and his father married a du Pont.

Jurden sentenced him in 2009 to intense probation, still ongoing. The tumult turned on the misapprehension she had said Richards would "not fare well" in prison. Those words were spoken by Richards' lawyer and only noted by Jurden in her sentencing order, and the sentence was suggested by the prosecutor and Richards' lawyer, who has described his client as developmentally disabled.

In recent months, the misapprehension has given way, and the state Senate, now brought around, rallied around and confirmed Jurden for a 12-year term to lead the state's biggest court with a far-ranging docket of criminal and civil cases.

The Senate chamber was packed, much of it in a show of solidarity for Jurden from judges and ex-judges, including Leo Strine Jr., the chief justice, and Myron Steele, the last chief justice. Other judges often show up for judicial confirmations, but this was exceptional.

"We see more judges than we normally see. It shows to me the level of support and the level of respect," said Patti Blevins, the Senate's Democratic president pro tem.

The Richards case hovered like a bad dream over the proceedings. Dave McBride, the Democratic majority leader, probably said more than anybody to try to chase it away.

McBride noted that Jurden's nomination by Markell, the Democratic governor, followed after a recommendation from the Judicial Nominating Commission, chaired by Bill Chandler, the former chancellor of the renowned Court of Chancery. McBride called the commission "the most effective clearinghouse in the United States" for screening judges.

"The commission has determined that you are well-qualified for the position of president judge of Superior Court and I have no reason to second-guess," Mc Bride said.

"You have been a champion in my opinion for the rule of law throughout your career. . . . As the rule of law required, you have applied the law to a complex set of facts and have rendered a decision without regard if it would be unpopular."

The Senate vote to confirm was 19-2, with Harris McDowell III, a Democratic senator from Wilmington, and Colin Bonini, a Republican senator from Camden-Wyoming, voting no. The most vocal objection came from McDowell, who characterized Richards' sentence as "what I consider letting him off."

McDowell called the promise of democracy the proposition "that government will see that justice is meted out to the powerful and the meek" and said he was haunted by "the image of a 200-pound, six-foot-four man trudging down the hall of his home to his three-year-old daughter."

As cathartic as the vote of confidence from the senators was, it was equally historic. Not only is Jurden the first woman to lead a major court, she is gay.

Between the Richards case and her sexual orientation, Jurden's nomination was a political risk by a governor not especially known for them, although Markell has certainly been steadfast on gay rights. The state has enacted gay rights, civil unions, gay marriage and transgender rights, all on his watch.

The confirmation vote was so fraught, it was right up there with one of the most famous in state history, when the Senate considered the nomination of Collins Seitz to be the chancellor in 1951 at a time of religious and racial prejudice.

Seitz, recognized today as one of the state's greatest judges of all time, was not only Catholic, but as a vice chancellor, he had ordered the integration of the University of Delaware.

Senators went sneaking out of Legislative Hall to avoid Seitz's confirmation vote. State troopers and Senate aides had to be dispatched to round them up, and Bert Carvel, the Democratic governor who nominated Seitz, was said to have promised to pave some dirt roads in exchange for enough votes.

Years later, Seitz said a senator he left unnamed had told him, "I didn't oppose you because you're a Catholic, but because of your radical views."

There was no such disorder for Jurden's confirmation. Blevins, the pro tem, kept the proceedings under control and even avoided what could have been an awkward situation with a deft move.

Because the session was the first since the election, the Senate had to organize itself, and Blevins had to appoint an Executive Committee to hold a confirmation hearing. McDowell is normally on the committee, but Blevins left him off in favor of Bethany Hall-Long, another Democratic senator.

Asked afterwards about it, Blevins said McDowell was not being punished for his no vote on Jurden and would be returned to the committee.

"Just for today. Senator McDowell was uncomfortable. No shakeup," Blevins said.

The Senate always rings with applause when a judge is confirmed, but this time it sounded a little louder, a little more fervent, a little more sustained.

If anyone amid the crowded chamber came for a witch hunt, there was not one. Nineteen senators voted yes, and that has made all the difference.