Posted: Aug. 13, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The names of two Superior Court judges, one upstate and one downstate, were sent Friday to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner as the pool for the next president judge, Delaware Grapevine has learned.

Judges Jan R. Jurden and James T. Vaughn Jr., both relatively junior members of the court, are said to be on the list of candidates drawn up by the governor's Judicial Nominating Commission to replace Henry duPont Ridgely, who joined the Supreme Court last month after serving as the leading judge on the Superior Court since 1990.

Gregory B. Patterson, the governor's communications director, confirmed the arrival of the list but not who was on it. The judicial selection process is confidential, but the interest in Delaware's legal circles is so intense that the names never remain secret for long, and this time is no exception.

The governor's choice must be confirmed by the state Senate, which will have to be called into special session since it ended its official term on June 30. The senators' return likely will be scheduled for September, according to Patterson.

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

With the governorship and the state Senate in Democratic control, the time was ripe for the president judge to flip from Republican to Democrat, and that is guaranteed to happen here with either Jurden or Vaughn. Both are Democrats, while Ridgely is a Republican.

The state constitution requires a political balance on the Superior Court, but it is silent on the party affiliation of the leading judge. The court currently is split evenly, nine Democrats and nine Republicans, with one vacancy because of Ridgely's departure.

Beyond the decision on party, the politics gets tricky with geography and gender coming into play.

By choosing Jurden, Minner would do what no governor has done before -- name a woman to the top post on one of the state's three major courts, the others being the Supreme Court and the Court of Chancery, the storied forum for business law.

In addition, Jurden would restore a geographical balance to the leadership of the major courts, always a serious consideration in Delaware politics. Jurden is from New Castle County, while Chief Justice Myron T. Steele is from Kent County and Chancellor William B. Chandler III is from Sussex County.

There previously was geographical parity with E. Norman Veasey, recently retired as the chief justice, from New Castle County, Ridgely on the Superior Court from Kent County and Chandler.

By choosing Vaughn, however, Minner would be going to her home base of Kent County, something she already has shown a bent for doing by making Steele the chief justice and promoting Ridgely. It is the first time in the history of the modern Supreme Court, which was set up in 1951, that there have been two Kent County justices on the state's highest bench.

Jurden has been a judge since 2001 when she became one of the first judicial appointments of Minner's administration. Jurden went to the bench from Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, one of the state's most prominent law firms.

Vaughn was appointed in 1998 by Gov. Thomas R. Carper, a Democrat now a U.S. senator. Vaughn serves as one of the three resident judges, the top Superior Court judge for each of the three counties. He practiced law at Schmittinger & Rodriguez in Dover.

No matter which candidate Minner chooses, the upside is that she gets a well-known father in the mix.

Vaughn is the son of state Sen. James T. Vaughn Sr., a Clayton Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and is one of the powers in Legislative Hall. Jurden is the daughter of Jack Jurden, officially retired as a political cartoonist but still drawing.

The downside, of course, is that somebody's famous father will be left out in the cold.