Future of state's bipartisan courts heads to Washington

U.S. Supreme Court to hear case on major party judgeships
January 1, 2020

A lawsuit filed in 2017 challenging Delaware's tradition of keeping a balanced judiciary representing only the two major political parties is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

James Adams, an Independent voter and member of the Delaware State Bar, filed a lawsuit after reading a law review article that questioned Delaware's Constitution, which requires an even number of Democrats and Republicans as judges in the state's courts. In courts where the number of judges is uneven, the constitution states the majority party may have no more than a bare majority.

Adams, a longtime Democrat, worked as assistant state solicitor under Attorney General Beau Biden and as deputy division director of the Family Division until he retired in 2015, according to Adams’ original lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for Delaware.

Court records state Adams desires a judgeship and has applied for openings since 2009. After becoming an Independent in 2017, records state, Adams refrained from applying for any judgeships because of Delaware's constitution.

Gov. John Carney, the defendant in the case, states that Adams switched his political affiliation to Independent days before filing the lawsuit, records state, and Adams’ interest in the case is “merely an academic exercise.”

“[He] had not applied for a judicial position since 2009 although, as a registered Democrat until 2017, he could have,” records state.

Even so, the appellate court ruled Adams still has a case. “The short time period in which Adams changed his party affiliation, read the law review article, and filed suit, without more, is insufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact about Adams’s prudential standing,” records state.

Adams contends his First Amendment rights have been violated by Delaware's requirement of political balance on its courts.

“We agree that Adams has clearly been injured by the major political party component and therefore has standing to challenge it,” wrote judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decision.

As a result of the court of appeals ruling, the future of Delaware's historically bipartisan courts is now up in the air.

Granted the right to petition U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 6, the case will be argued on a date yet to be announced. The court will determine whether Delaware's Constitution on judgeships is unfair to third-party applicants.

According to court records, Adams changed his voter registration to Independent because “he is progressive and grew frustrated with the centrism of the Democratic Party in Delaware.”

“He now describes himself as ‘more of a [Vermont Senator] Bernie [Sanders] independent,’” court records state.

But centrism is why Delaware's courts are revered and have such worldwide acclaim, according to some justices.

Even in the appellate decision that ruled Delaware's bipartisan application process cannot survive a First Amendment challenge, the judges still praised Delaware's judicial system.

“Although this is as paradoxical as it is ironic, it is really not surprising that the judicial system that has resulted from Delaware’s political balance requirements is as exemplary as the judges who comprise it,” judges wrote.

The appellate court decision noted that praise for the Delaware judiciary is nearly universal and well deserved.

“Scholars and academics routinely refer to Delaware’s courts as the preeminent forum for litigation, particularly for cases involving business disputes. In 1992, on the bicentennial anniversary of the establishment of Delaware's Court of Chancery, then U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist observed that the ‘Delaware state court system has established its national preeminence in the field of corporation law,’” the decision reads.

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