Posted: Dec. 14, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

By next month, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner will settle on two nominees for the Kent County bench, ending a string of five judges she has named in her home county since the spring.

Minner, a Democrat elected to her second term last month, has received a list of candidates from her Judicial Nominating Commission for two vacancies on the Superior Court, one for resident judge and one for judge, Delaware Grapevine has learned.

The nomination for resident judge, a first-among-equals responsible for running the Kent County Courthouse, is as wrapped up as anything can be for Superior Court Judge William L. Witham Jr. Because of all the previous judicial appointments Minner has made in the county, Witham is the only candidate in position for the post.

The governor is said to have a list of four names for the other judgeship, all of them Kent County lawyers: Thomas I. Barrows, Gary F. Traynor, John R. Williams and Robert B. Young.

The judicial nomination process is confidential, but there is always so much interest that the names do not stay secret for long, as in this case. Applicants are screened by a Judicial Nominating Commission, a panel appointed by the governor, who must make her selection from the list it sends her.

This series of Kent County appointments began with Minner's decision to give Myron T. Steele a Supreme Court promotion from justice to chief justice. Next she elevated Superior Court President Judge Henry duPont Ridgely to Steele's old seat, and then she moved Superior Court Resident Judge James T. Vaughn Jr. to president judge.

All of that switching left the three-judge Superior Court bench in Kent County technically with two openings for a resident judge and a judge. Vaughn will continue to be based there as the president judge, overseeing the Superior Court statewide. Witham, a judge on the court since 1999, is in line to move up to resident judge, and his seat will go to someone new.

Although Minner is a Democrat, the new judge must be a Republican to satisfy a constitutional requirement for political balance on the court. All of the candidates are.

Barrows, a partner at Hudson Jones Jaywork & Fisher, is a past president of the Kent County Bar Association. Traynor is a partner at Prickett Jones & Elliott. Williams is a deputy attorney general who was once the Kent County comptroller, part of a husband-and-wife political team in 1992 that saw him lose but his wife, now outgoing Insurance Commissioner Donna Lee Williams, win. Young, who practices with his son, is the president of the Delaware State Bar Association.

Superior Court judges hear both criminal and civil cases. They serve 12-year terms and must be confirmed by the state Senate.

The nominations are overdue. Under the state constitution, the governor is supposed to make judicial appointments within 60 days of a vacancy, and the resident judgeship has been open since Vaughn took his oath as president judge on Oct. 12.

Joseph C. Schoell, counsel to the governor, says the nominations were delayed because of the election and because the Senate is out of session until January. He notes that the timeframe has been elongated before -- for example, when Jack B. Jacobs moved from the Court of Chancery to the Supreme Court in June 2003 but Donald F. Parsons Jr. was not nominated to replace him until September 2003.

"Although there is a directive in the constitution, as a practical matter, that doesn't always happen," Schoell said. "If it's not followed, there is not a consequence."

There is a consequence for judges who do not take their oaths within 30 days of Senate confirmation. The constitution requires them to forfeit the office.

That is a deadline no one even thinks about testing.