Delaware bill could affect the Governor’s Supreme Court nominees’ confirmation

DOVER, Del. – Some Delaware lawmakers are fighting for equal representation on the State Supreme Court, passing a bipartisan bill today in the House that could potentially affect the confirmation of Governor John Carney’s two nominees.

The legislation, House Bill 135, passed the House on Thursday with 37 voting in favor and four absent.

The bill would require representation from all three counties on the state’s highest court. Meaning, that of the five Justices that comprise the court, one would have to be from Kent County, another from Sussex County, and at least two from New Castle County. The fifth seat will be at large and could be filled by a candidate from any of the three counties.

The bipartisan effort comes on the heels of Governor Carney nominating two justices earlier this month, Abigail LeGrow and N. Christopher Griffiths, both of whom would be from New Castle County. If they’re nominated, there would be no sitting justices from Kent County.

State Representative Bryan Shupe, a Republican who represents part of Kent County, tells us it would be unfair to the people who live in Kent County not to have representation on the state’s highest court.

“We want them to live in these communities and from across the State of Delaware,” Rep. Shupe explained. “So that when they make decisions, they understand from where they’re living and how it’s going to impact our communities on the ground level.”

Prior to today’s vote, those same concerns were echoed by State Representative Ruth Briggs-King who also sponsored the legislation. She says if the bill passes, it could lead to the Governor potentially changing his nomination.

“This could send him a strong message,” Rep. Briggs-King said. “Maybe the Governor will reflect on all of these different concerns and he can always change his process and then the Senate itself, if this is not successful, the Senate itself may have problems with the nomination.”

The court’s justices are nominated by the governor and then confirmed by the state Senate, appointed to 12-year terms. Currently, the law requires that three of the justices represent one of the majority parties, with the other two justices representing the other majority political party.

Prior to the establishment of state’s modern-day Supreme Court in 1951, Delaware’s highest court consisted of 25 men. Of the 25 serving, 15 came from New Castle County, five from Kent County and five from Sussex County.

The bill’s primary sponsor, State Representative Sean Lynn, issued a statement following the bill’s passage in the House, saying it would solidify fair representation on the Delaware Supreme Court.

“Historically and traditionally, Supreme Court appointees have been brought forth in a manner that has represented geographical balance. And while there is something to be said about upholding and honoring traditions, sometimes it isn’t always practical or possible. This bill turns that tradition into a mandate, and solidifies fair representation for our highest court,” said Rep. Lynn. “HB 135 provides a pathway for continued fairness within our highest court. It ensures we won’t face a future with a Supreme Court comprised of five justices who are all residents of a singular county.”

Despite the bill’s broad bipartisan support, there have been some concerns about the possibility of Governor Carney vetoing the legislation, which Rep. Bryan Shupe says would be challenged by lawmakers.

“When it ends up on his desk, even if it is vetoed, we do have a strong coalition between Democrats and Republicans that believe that are justices should live, not only inside of Delaware, but should live across Delaware,” Rep. Shupe emphasized. “Again, we want them to be able to understand the crimes that are going on inside this state and how they’re impacting our communities in the communities that they’re living inside.”

At least one State Senator has already raised concerns about one of the Supreme Court nominee’s, N. Christopher Griffiths, after we broke news last week that he was recently convicted of alcohol-related reckless driving.

Given that the nomination came just a couple of weeks after the conviction, we reached out to the Governor’s Office who issued a statement, calling what happened a “serious mistake” but at the same time praising Griffiths’ legal work and accomplishments.

The Supreme Court confirmations will be considered sometime within the next month in the Delaware State Senate.

Now that HB 135 has cleared the House, the legislation will now head to the Senate for consideration. If it’s passed and then signed into law, providing the Governor doesn’t veto it, the bill would add the above-explained residency requirements to existing law and take effect upon the Governor’s signature.

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