Posted: Sept. 10, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Gov. Ruth Ann Minner is tapping Superior Court Judge James T. Vaughn Jr. to be the court's next president judge, turning once more to a fellow Kent County Democrat for a prime judicial post.

Vaughn's nomination is expected to be considered later this month once a special session is scheduled for the state Senate, where his father James T. Vaughn Sr., a Clayton Democrat, chairs the Judiciary Committee in another classic case of only-in-Delaware coziness.

In other judicial appointments Friday, the governor named Michael K. Newell, a Wilmington lawyer respected as a domestic law practitioner, to be a judge on the Family Court and also reappointed Family Court Judge William J. Walls Jr.

By selecting Vaughn, Minner methodically is on her way to cementing Kent County's leadership in the state judiciary and to shifting the top post on two courts from Republican to Democratic hands.

The transition began in the spring with the retirement of Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey, a New Castle County Republican. Minner promoted Myron T. Steele, a Kent County Democrat, from justice to chief justice and then plucked Ridgely, a Kent County Republican, from the Superior Court to serve on the Supreme Court, creating the opening for Vaughn's nomination.

The state constitution requires the courts to be balanced politically, but it is silent on the party affiliation of the presiding judge, leaving it up to the governor and the state Senate, where the Democrats currently have the majority.

If Vaughn is confirmed, the state's three major courts all will have downstaters in charge. Chancellor William B. Chandler III, a Sussex County Republican, has run the Court of Chancery, the state's renowned forum for business law, since 1997.

Vaughn's rise has been quick in judicial terms, where 12-year appointments generally allow for only glacial movement. He joined the court in 1998 after practicing law at Schmittinger & Rodriguez in Dover.

The new president judge will serve a 12-year term and be paid $150,300 a year at the head of the state's largest court, a 19-member bench that hears both criminal and civil cases. As an associate judge, Vaughn receives an annual salary of $145,000.

Vaughn was said to be chosen over fellow Superior Court Judge Jan R. Jurden, a New Castle County Democrat who was the first new judge Minner created early in her gubernatorial term in 2001.

Jurden could have been the first woman to lead a major court and also could have represented geographical balance in the judicial leadership. Instead, Minner decided there was no place like home for finding a Superior Court president judge.