Posted: Feb. 17, 2015
By Celia Cohen
There could be no doubt Jan Jurden will be charting her own way as the new president judge of the Delaware Superior Court. Not after the first thing she did from the bench was overrule Sonia Sotomayor, the justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Jurden did it gently, to be sure, but she did it.
"Justice Sotomayor once said, 'I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences.' With all due deference to Her Honor, I would modify that to say, in my case, I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary people," Jurden said.
It was classic Jurden, building on the vision and vitality of others, but giving the kaleidoscope a twist to give things a new brilliance and perspective that nobody saw before.
Jurden formally took her oath of office Monday in a public investiture at the New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington, although she was already sworn in privately last month. The court provided a video for this account of the ceremony.
There were so many historic firsts going on, they were stumbling over each other.
Jurden is the first woman to lead the Superior Court, the state's largest with 21 judges and a wide-ranging docket of civil and criminal cases, and the seventh president judge overall since the court took on its modern form in 1951.
Not only that, but Jurden's oath was administered by Susan Del Pesco, a retired judge who was the first woman to serve on the court when she was appointed in 1988.
Not only that, but Jurden's arrival on the court in 2001 was the first new judicial appointment by Ruth Ann Minner, the first woman in Delaware to be the governor.
Not only that, but it was the first robing of a president judge involving a gay couple, as Jurden was assisted into the courthouse version of basic black by Cheryl Siskin, her spouse who is a lawyer.
Not to mention the unusual circumstances of Jurden as a judge who knows personally what it is like to be wrongly accused.
It was in the court of public opinion, not a court of law, but it was still fearsome and destructive. The Internet mob howled and the trolls lit torches over a misbegotten notion in a child sex-abuse case that Jurden coddled the defendant, who was the privileged, but troubled, offspring of the distinguished Richards' lineage of lawyers and the du Pont family.
The truth eventually won out, and Jurden was left gracefully better, not bitter.
If anyone extracted the essence of what the Superior Court will be like under Jurden, it was Del Pesco, who managed to evoke solemn dignity while also channeling "The Sound of Music" and the song about Maria with the line, "I'd like to say a word in her behalf/Maria makes me laugh."
"Judge Jurden, you have been entrusted with a great responsibility. You are preceded by accomplished jurists who have performed the role admirably, both as judges and stewards of the court," Del Pesco said.
"Please accept from the first woman appointed to the Superior Court heartfelt best wishes, because you make me laugh."
To prove it, Jurden did make people laugh when she gave her remarks. Nor was it the male-pattern-baldness humor the bench and bar have come to know from Leo Strine Jr., the chief justice who uses his famous wit like a cudgel, but rather the all-in-it-together humor of the human experience, a cartoonish valentine of life.
This should not be a surprise, not since her father is Jack Jurden, the celebrated editorial cartoonist.
Jurden gave a metaphorical wink to her three children, teasing, "I know it cannot be easy having a judge and a lawyer for parents. I realize this, when you are trapped by a prior inconsistent statement."
Jurden embraced the entirety of her own human condition, her mistakes and her achievements, her misgivings and her trailblazing, as she addressed Siskin, saying, "After much reflection, I used to say that I wanted our life to be boring, but I don't want it to be boring."
Whatever the Superior Court under Jurden is like, it is not going to be boring.
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The Superior Court is not done evolving. It needs another judge.
Someone has to replace Jurden on the bench. The names of the candidates have already gone to Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, from his Judicial Nominating Commission, which is responsible for screening the applicants.
The finalists on the list, which is confidential, are said to be: John Andrade, Jeff Clark and Mary Sherlock, all of them Dover lawyers.
Although Jurden sits in New Castle County, her replacement will be located in Kent County for circuitous reasons going all the way back to Myron Steele's retirement as the chief justice in 2013.
Steele was replaced by Strine. That led Carolyn Berger, who was passed over for chief justice, to quit the Supreme Court. Her seat went to Jim Vaughn Jr., who left the post as the Superior Court's president judge for it. Vaughn was based in Kent County, so the court there was still owed a judge when Jurden took over after Vaughn.
All of the candidates are Democrats because of the constitutional requirement for political balance on the court. Jurden is a Democrat, so she has to be replaced by another Democrat.
The geography can shift, but the political affiliation cannot.