Posted: Dec. 19, 2014

ROLL CALL: 19-2 

By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The vote to confirm Jan Jurden as the Superior Court's president judge was not accidental.

When Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, nominated her on Dec. 1, there was no guarantee Jurden would have the votes to be confirmed when the state Senate met 15 days later.

That sense of doubt set off a spontaneous advocacy in Delaware's legal circles with judges, ex-judges, lawyers and courthouse staffers mobilizing to take on one of the hardest tasks there is.

They had to prove things were not what they seemed.

They had to debunk once and for all the smear on Jurden's otherwise sterling reputation, coming from the twisted telling of how she came to give a probation sentence to Robert H. Richards IV, the offspring of generations of distinguished lawyers and the du Pont family, for sexually abusing his daughter as a toddler.

Not only that, it had to be so convincing that at least 11 senators, a bare majority in the 21-member chamber, would vote for Jurden, even though they knew what the public perception could be and they had their own political necks to think of.

"This was iffier than they usually are, although the odds were certainly in favor," said Patti Blevins, the Senate's Democratic president pro tem.

This is a little state. Maybe what happened could only happen here.

The senators were swamped by legal people they knew well, all making the case for confirmation, while Jurden herself was making the rounds of the senators, one by one, and by the time it was done, the roll call for confirmation was 19-2.

"I have never seen such an organic outpouring from the legal community for an appointment and a desire to support someone through the confirmation process," said Lisa Goodman, a partner at Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, where Jurden practiced law before she joined the Superior Court in 2001.

Jurden and Team Jurden, as it were, made quite an impression.

"Not only did I find her very open, I had a sense this was a good judge, and she took her job seriously, and I have never received as many e-mails and phone calls and letters," said Gary Simpson, the Republican minority leader.

There was probably no more influential communication than a three-page letter from Joe Slights, a lawyer who returned to private practice after a 12-year term alongside Jurden on the Superior Court.

"Judge Jurden is a tireless advocate for children who is not afraid to impose tough sentences when circumstances warrant. . . .

"I believe the sentence imposed by Judge Jurden in this case (which was precisely the sentence recommended by the prosecutor) was entirely appropriate under the circumstances. . . .

"The most unfortunate aspect of the media's coverage of this case is the suggestion that Judge Jurden gave special treatment to Mr. Richards. The basis for that suggestion was a hand-written notation in the 'Notes' section of Mr. Richards' sentencing order that the defendant 'would not fare well' in prison.

"However, a review of the transcript of the defendant's sentencing hearing shows that Judge Jurden never once made that statement, and it was Mr. Richards' attorney who stated that he hoped the judge would conclude that his client 'is not a suitable candidate for incarceration. In fact, I would not think that he would fare well there.'

"It is not unusual for an attorney's comments to be included in the 'Notes' section of a sentencing order. In light of the death threats Judge Jurden received as a result of the above statement, it is particularly disturbing that these comments were attributed to her, as they are so at odds with her character and approach."

                                   --Joe Slights

                                       Dec. 8, 2014

Slights called her "one of the most effective and qualified judges to have served the citizens of Delaware," as he explained, "The path to Judge Jurden's office was well-worn with the footsteps of her fellow judges (including me) who frequently sought her counsel on the most challenging issues confronting the court. Simply stated, she was, and is, the 'go to' judge on that court."

Slights also provided what can be regarded as the definitive debunking for the Richards' sentencing. (See the box.)

In Sussex County, the most conservative part of the state, Jurden got a major assist from Bill Lee, a retired Superior Court judge himself, best known for presiding over the murder trial of Tom Capano, and the Republican nominee for governor twice. Never mind Jurden is a Democrat. The fellowship of judges matters more.

"I hope I set things straight," Lee said.

Nor did it go unnoticed that the Judicial Nominating Commission, which recommended Jurden for president judge, was chaired by Bill Chandler, the former chancellor who is such a part of Sussex County, he was just elected to the Dagsboro Town Council.

All of the Sussex senators wound up voting to confirm. That included Bryant Richardson, a Republican who is the Senate's only rookie, voting in his first session not much more than an hour after he was sworn in.

"It would have been nice to have something a little more apple pie for a first vote," Richardson said.

There is no doubt minds were changed. Dave Lawson, a Kent County Republican, cast a yes vote, which was not his earliest inclination -- "I tell you flat out, it was a no."

Nevertheless, Lawson watched Jurden in court, and as a retired state trooper, he knew what he liked in a judge and he liked what he saw. He also talked to Jurden and eventually concluded she was dealt a bad hand in the Richards case.

"When you're handed a bunch of chicken bones, it's hard to make a casserole, and I think she was handed a bunch of chicken bones," Lawson said. "I settled on the decision she would not let me down."

In the end, only two senators -- one a Democrat, one a Republican, one from upstate, one from downstate -- voted against confirmation. Harris McDowell, a Wilmington Democrat, and Colin Bonini, a Kent County Republican, both cited the Richards case as their reason, McDowell in a speech before the vote and Bonini in an interview afterwards.

So Jurden had her day in the legislature, and it went her way.

Besides, who better to understand what Jurden was put through than people who get slammed in mailers sent to their districts at election time with stuff about them that was made up?