Paula Ryan says goodbye to Justice Department

Lewes prosecutor named Family Court judge
Paula Ryan sits in her office, which is nearly empty, at the Department of Justice in Georgetown.  She is scheduled to become a family court judge, Monday, Jan. 7. BY KARA NUZBACK
January 1, 2013

Paula Ryan is having some difficulty leaving her second-floor office in the Sussex County Department of Justice.

Sussex County’s chief prosecutor was appointed Sussex County’s newest Family Court judge. Ryan, 44, is scheduled to begin her 12-year term in the Georgetown courthouse Monday, Jan. 7.

She said she is not nervous about taking on new topics. In Family Court, Ryan said, she will be dealing with custody battles, property division and other issues she never directly handled in Superior Court.

And she said she is not nervous about going from attorney to judge.  This, she said, is the first judgeship she ever applied for.

Ryan is having difficulty leaving because she truly loves her job as a deputy attorney general.  “I’m excited about the change, but I’ve had a wonderful career here, and I work with the most amazing people,” she said.

“It’s just been the most wonderful job,” she said.  “I’m reluctant to actually leave.”

Since she was a child, Ryan said, she knew she wanted to practice law.

She grew up in Marion, Pa., the sixth of her mother and father’s seven children.  She attended an all-girls Catholic high school.

Ryan’s father was a civil attorney who worked in the same law firm for nearly his entire career.  “He always seemed to be solving people’s problems,” she said.

She said she went into law because she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps.  “I knew that for as long as I can remember,” she said.  “Just a desire to be like him and make him proud of me.”

Ryan went to college at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, then law school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

After graduating from Georgetown, Ryan worked at a civil law firm in Philadelphia for two years. “It didn’t feel right.  I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” she said.

So Ryan left the law firm for a one-year clerkship with Delaware Supreme Court Justice Randy Holland.  As a clerk, she said, she was exposed to many different types of law.

She soon realized she wanted to prosecute, even though that had not been her focus in law school.  “I felt this is where I had the most interest,” she said.

Ryan’s clerkship with Holland ended in September 1996.  On Oct. 1, 1996, she began work at the Attorney General’s Office.

At first, Ryan said, she felt best suited to work in the AG’s appellate unit, which was heavy on research and writing - her strengths.  But with no appellate positions available, she was assigned to trial court.  “And then, trial by fire,” she said.

“You did learn by doing and by making mistakes,” Ryan said.

Ryan grew confident in her abilities as a trial attorney, and when a position in the appellate unit became available and was offered to her, Ryan said, she refused it.

Ryan has a no-nonsense courtroom manner.  Dressed in dark business suits and a simple string of pearls, she enters every courtroom with a confidence that is backed by clear and authoritative arguments.

But in her office, Ryan is more relaxed.  She smiles often, and her clothes are brighter and more casual.  Surrounded by the last remaining boxes of documents left over from various trials, she talks about why she chose to work for the Department of Justice, rather than become a public defender.

Her interest in working as a prosecutor, she said, probably came from her father’s words of wisdom: Be humble, and always do the right thing.  “Wanting justice, wanting to do the right thing,” she said were her motivating factors.

Every case is different.  Sometimes, Ryan said, the right thing means finding treatment for the defendant and identifying the underlying cause of their actions.  “And then sometimes the right thing is a bit more punitive,” she said.

Two recent high-profile cases fell into the latter category.  Ryan was head prosecutor for the trials of Derrick Powell, the man who shot and killed Georgetown Patrolman Chad Spicer, and Earl Bradley, a former Lewes pediatrician who raped and sexually assaulted at least 86 children in his care.

Ryan sought the maximum punishment for both Powell and Bradley, and she got it.  Powell was sentenced to death in May 2011; Bradley, sentenced in August 2011, will serve 14 life sentences and 164 years in prison with no possibility of parole.

Of all the cases she has prosecuted, Ryan said, it might have been the most difficult for her to keep her emotions in check when prosecuting Powell.  “I’m married to a police officer,” she said.  “I’ve gotten very close to Chad Spicer’s parents. It was very difficult; it was a very personal case.”

As a Lewes resident of 14 years, Ryan said it was also difficult to keep emotions out of the way when prosecuting Bradley.  “Seeing the faces of these children and these parents, it was a very heavy burden to get whatever measure of justice we could get,” she said.  “It was a dagger to the heart of the community.”

And Ryan loves her community in Lewes. “I was not going to let one evil person destroy that.  I was going to do whatever I could do,” she said.  “It was a very strong driving force for me to move this forward.”

When prosecuting Bradley, Ryan said, there was no evidence or expertise she needed that she was unable get. “I had the assistance of multitudes,” she said.  “There was no stone unturned. Everything we had was thrown at this.”

As with all her cases, Ryan said, her goal was to get justice.  “And that’s what I believe we achieved in both cases,” she said. “You just try to do the best you can and help these people heal.”

Ryan admits to getting absorbed in cases at times.

Of her husband of five years, Ryan said, “He’s in that same field, and he understands it.”

“My daughter, I think, has just gotten used to it,” Ryan said with a laugh.  “They appreciate when the cases are over.”

Ryan said she tries to keep her life balanced, and she always puts her family first.

Although her mother had seven children, Ryan said, she never remembers her mother missing a sports event or after-school activity when she and her siblings were growing up.  “I try to do that for my daughter as well,” she said.  “I want to give her the same thing I feel like I grew up with.”

Following the string of challenging cases, Ryan said she felt it was time for change.  She saw an advertisement for an open position as a judge in Sussex County, and she decided to throw her hat in the ring.  “It was the first time I applied for a judicial position,” she said.  “I didn’t have the confidence that I would get it.”

Ryan said she is grateful and honored to have been selected for the Family Court position.  “But the whole process is surreal,” she said.  “I have had a wonderful career here.  It’s really hard to leave.”

At the beginning of her 16-year career at the Attorney General’s Office, Ryan was a Family Court attorney.  She said she remembers judges trying help families through difficult times and put children on a better path.  “It’s not designed to punish.  It’s designed to help them and redirect them,” she said. “I have the same desire to help people through difficult and sensitive times.”

Though she will miss working for the attorney general, Ryan said, she is looking forward to her next 12 years as a Family Court judge.  “My intention is to throw myself into this,” she said. “I have a tendency to go all out.”

Ryan is taking one memento from the DOJ - her secretary, Carol, is coming with her to Family Court.

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