Golden justice: Delaware Family Court celebrates 50 years

By Mike Finney
Posted 9/7/21

DOVER — Family Court of the State of Delaware and many of its more than 300 employees and judicial officers gathered together underneath a tent on Legislative Mall in Dover on Tuesday afternoon …

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Golden justice: Delaware Family Court celebrates 50 years

Posted

DOVER — Family Court of the State of Delaware and many of its more than 300 employees and judicial officers gathered together under a tent on Legislative Mall in Dover on Tuesday afternoon to celebrate the court’s golden anniversary.

Fifty years ago, such a celebration didn’t appear to be a foregone conclusion — or the future of the court for that matter.

“We are grateful for (those) who had that vision in 1971,” said The Honorable Michael K. Newell, Chief Judge of the Family Court of the State of Delaware, “but the early years of Family Court were not easy.

“Fifty years ago today, ‘The Morning News’ reported on the opening of a newly created Family Court. ‘The Morning News’ reported the following statement — ‘The Family Court of the State of Delaware, officially born today, could be compared to an eagerly awaited infant who arrives a week after his father has declared bankruptcy,’ an obvious reference to the state’s fiscal condition at the time and the lack of funding for this court.”

Despite the many obstacles and challenges, the Family Court of the State of Delaware has managed to persevere.

In fact, Kent and Sussex counties are preparing to build state-of-the-art new Family Court courthouses in the near future, to better serve families going through difficulties and legal issues.

“The Family Court will be ready to face the challenges and the opportunities over the next 50 years, but today is a day to celebrate the rich history of this extremely important court for the citizens of Delaware,” Chief Judge Newell said.

Gov. John Carney attended the ceremony and thanked those gathered for their jobs in an often difficult — and stressful — profession.

He presented Chief Judge Newell with a tribute recognizing Family Court for all that it does for the citizens of Delaware.

The Honorable Collins J. Seitz Jr., Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Delaware — like the governor — noted the uniqueness of Family Court compared to others.

“While these courts are unique in their jurisdiction, it is the Family Court that deals exclusively with matters involving families and children,” he said. “For 50 years, the Family Court has answered the call to resolve the most personal of cases that do not fall neatly within the legal protection ‘one-side wins, one-side loses’ paradigm.

“I often think about the heavy weight of these cases on the shoulders of our Family Court judicial officers. I read the heartbreaking family stories and I know these cases must follow you home at night.”

Chief Justice Seitz said that decisions made in Family Court often weigh heavily on employees and citizens of Delaware.

“I think about what it means for a Family Court judge to say to a parent, ‘Your right to care for your child or children will not be the same as before,’” he said. “Instead, it will be composed by a court order. And I also think about what it means as a Family Court judge to say at a hearing, ‘You are no longer a parent of a child.’

“For 50 years, the Family Court has met the challenges head on, never shirking its responsibilities to make a decision where the right answer never seems (to be an easy one).”

Order in the court

Family Court’s origins date back to 1911 and the creation of the Juvenile Court for Wilmington. In 1921, the Juvenile Court’s jurisdiction was expanded to all of New Castle County. In 1933, a second Juvenile Court was created for Kent and Sussex counties.

In the subsequent years, as the jurisdiction expanded, the name “Juvenile Court” was replaced by “Family Court.” However, the two courts continued to operate separately until they were merged into a single statewide court in 1971.

In 2005, the Delaware Legislature granted the Family Court Constitutional Court status.

Delaware Family Court has 17 judges and 16 commissioners statewide. It employs more than 300 on its staff — and it is a busy place.

In Fiscal Year 2020, Family Court processed more than 40,000 filings and issued more than 41,000 dispositions.

Family Court has jurisdiction over virtually all matters related to families in one unified statewide court.

It has civil jurisdiction over divorce, annulment, property division, child support, custody, visitation, guardianship, child welfare matters (dependency/neglect), termination of parental rights, adoption and civil protection orders (PFAs).

There is also criminal jurisdiction over juvenile delinquency matters and adult misdemeanor domestic violence.

Putting it in writing

Delaware Family Court had a 254-page book published in honor of its golden anniversary, in commemoration of its history.

In the book’s introduction, Chief Justice Seitz wrote, “On this golden anniversary of the Family Court, I extend my heartfelt thanks to the judicial officers and employees who each day do their best to administer justice under trying circumstances.

“The Family Court History Project will remind us of the many judges, lawyers and staff who have guided the court from its humble beginnings to the Family Court of today — a court ready to take on the challenges that come with new definitions of family, intimate relationships, and care for the adults of tomorrow. The next 50 years look brighter than ever.”

Justice Randy J. Holland (retired) of the Delaware Supreme Court, wrote the forward in the book chronicling the history of Family Court.

Justice Holland wrote, “The fifty-year retrospective on the Delaware Family Court demonstrates that it has been true to its mission ‘to provide equal access to justice for the families and children under its jurisdiction in a manner that is fair and efficient and that maintains the public’s trust and confidence in an independent and accountable judiciary.

“As this book demonstrates, and as I can attest, the success of the Family Court is attributable to the devotion and efforts of the judges and commissioners who faithfully fulfill the mission of the Family Court every day. That legacy will undoubtedly continue.”