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Kent County lawmakers, attorneys advocate for Kent County representation on Delaware Supreme Court

Tom Byrne/Delaware Public Media

House lawmakers voted last week to require proportional representation from each county on Delaware’s Supreme Court, but the bill will likely not take effect before Gov. John Carney’s nominees for the court’s vacant seats go before the Senate for confirmation.

Kent and Sussex Counties residents have held at least one seat each on Delaware’s Supreme Court for more than forty years, but that tradition has never been codified.

Former Justice James T. Vaughn’s retirement on Monday leaves the court without a Kent County representative, and Carney’s pick to replace him, attorney N. Christopher Griffiths, is from New Castle County. Carney chose another New Castle County resident, Superior Court Judge Abigail LeGrow, to replace former Justice Tamika Montgomery-Reeves, who left Delaware's Supreme Court in February to take a seat on the US Court of Appeals for the Third District.

With support from the Kent And Sussex County Bar Associations, State Rep. Sean Lynn attempted to intervene by introducing legislation requiring proportional representation of each county on the court, meaning that Kent and Sussex County would each be guaranteed one seat.

He argues the residency requirements are part of an established practice by the General Assembly.

"Other constitutional courts in Delaware have statutory residence requirements," he told members of the House Judiciary Committee last week. "This would not be new or novel for the Delaware Supreme Court.”

Previous iterations of the Supreme Court have been subject to residency requirements; from 1900 to 1951, Delaware's code required that the court be comprised of justices from all three counties.

Former Supreme Court Justice Charles Welch also appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to support the bill, arguing proportional representation ensures the voices and unique concerns of each county receive consideration.

"Regional diversity is really important," he said. "Kent County will not have a voice on the Supreme Court, which is the court that oversees all administration of justice in the State of Delaware.”

The bill passed unanimously in the House, but Senate lawmakers are not expected to vote on the proposal until after Carney moves to have his nominees confirmed this week. "The Governor is confident that both Judge LeGrow and [N. Christopher] Griffiths have the experience, knowledge and commitment to public service necessary to serve on the Supreme Court," said Carney spokesperson Emily David Herschman.

But Lynn maintains that the concerns of Kent County attorneys and lawmakers do not lay in the nominees' qualifications. "The issue is the preservation and integrity of our highest Court, which has always recognized the importance of representation from all three counties," he said.

"The Governor spent over a million dollars in legal fees pursuing his quest for political balance on the courts," he added. "I cannot reconcile this action with his commitment to the tradition of judicial balance."

If the bill passes in the Senate, Kent County could still go years without representation on the Supreme Court. Kent County is also currently unrepresented on Delaware's Court of Chancery.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.