Posted: Sept. 21, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

As the state Senate returned to Dover on Tuesday for a one-day special session, Democratic Majority Whip Anthony J. DeLuca promised, "We're going to do judges and go home."

It sounded short and sweet, but it turned out only to be sweet. This was the Delaware Senate, a social and political phenomenon, a world unto itself, and it was going to get around to taking care of business when it was going to get around to taking care of business.

The main order of business, when the Senate did get to it, was the unanimous approval of three judgeships, elevating Superior Court Judge James T. Vaughn Jr. to president judge, reappointing Family Court Judge William J. Walls Jr. and appointing Wilmington attorney Michael K. Newell to the Family Court.

From the scheduled start of judicial confirmation hearings to an impromptu reception in the governor's office, the senatorial day lasted about five hours.

There was much milling about, much dawdling, much conversation among the senators who have not been together since the 2004 session ended in the wee hours of July 1.

Besides, they were waiting for the evening to come, when they were going to Harrington for the viewing of state Rep. G. Robert "Bobby" Quillen, their Republican colleague who died Saturday of liver cancer at the age of 75.

The doors to the House of Representatives were hung with black crepe, and the Senate observed a moment of silence when it convened.

The work itself was a breeze. The judicial nominees were confirmed as quick as the bang of a gavel, the discussion on the floor not going beyond Sen. Thurman G. Adams Jr., the Democratic president pro tem, intoning, "Roll call."

The only suspense was whether Sen. James T. Vaughn Sr., a Clayton Democrat, would vote or abstain on the appointment of his son for president judge.

"Although I know this man very well and consider him well-qualified, trying to avoid any conflict of interest, I'll be not voting," Vaughn Sr. said.

"I don't think he'll need his vote, anyway," Adams quipped.

Vaughn Jr. did not. He was confirmed 20-0. In the other roll calls, the senators voted 21-0 for Walls and Newell. All three will serve 12-year terms.

Vaughn Jr. assumes the leadership of the state's largest court, which hears both criminal and civil cases. He replaces Henry duPont Ridgely, who became a Supreme Court justice. Vaughn Jr. has served on the court since 1998.

The rise of Vaughn Jr. completes a judicial trifecta for Kent County, home to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner. In a series of appointments since the spring, she has given Kent County a chief justice in Myron T. Steele, a justice in Ridgely and now Vaughn Jr., whose selection not only rewards a county but the Senate Democratic caucus where his father serves.

It is, after all, an election year. Minner is up, and Kent County has not been kind of late to statewide Democrats, which is what she is. U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. did not carry Kent County in 2002, nor did U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper in 2000.

Not that anyone is casting aspersions on Minner's judicial appointments. "It's all logical and the best choice," Kent Countian Edward R. "Ned" Davis, a lobbyist and close adviser to the governor, said with a smile he could not hide. "It just so happened they were from Kent County."

With nothing on the agenda but the judgeships, the Senate Executive Committee held one of its most leisurely confirmation hearings ever. It gave the senators time to explore various judicial matters.

They asked Vaughn Jr. what he thought about the death penalty for juveniles. It is permissible in Delaware, and changing it would be up to the legislature.

Vaughn Jr. weighed in, "I'm extremely reluctant to say there could never be a case where the conscience of the community -- which is what we're trying to achieve -- might make it appropriate. I would think in the most number of cases it would not be appropriate."

The senators asked Newell for his thoughts on whether the Family Court should continue to keep most of its proceedings closed to the public. A respected domestic law practitioner, Newell said it never mattered to him as an attorney, but his clients seemed to want their cases kept private.

"That's just the personal preference of clients I represented," he said.

The only judge who escaped a lengthy confirmation hearing was Walls. As is  customary, the Senate did not hold one for a routine reappointment -- although Adams offered in the light-hearted mood of the day.

"We could give him a hearing if he requested," Adams said.

"I think we've had enough today," Walls replied.

The Senate session produced one spectacular misunderstanding. It occurred during a series of roll calls that included nominations for justices of the peace, along with the judges for the Superior Court and the Family Court.

Adams asked for consideration of  James G. Horn's appointment for justice of the peace, but when the speaker is from Sussex County, as Adams is, and the chamber's microphone system is dying, as this one was, "James G. Horn" sounds a lot like "James T. Vaughn."

Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., who was presiding over the Senate, very nearly had Horn headed for an unprecedented promotion, until he was corrected before the roll call began.

"Congratulations, Mr. Horn, we almost made you president judge of the Superior Court," Carney quipped.