Judge T. Henley Graves announced his retirement this past February, but he isn’t quite ready to leave the bench.
Graves decided to retire last August, when he turned 70 years old. By then, he had served 28 years on the Superior Court bench.
“My letter to the governor started off, ‘Everybody says the judge knows when it’s time to retire. My time is now.’ I still had fire in my belly, still enjoyed doing the work. But it was time for someone else to get a fresh start and for me to say, ‘Happy trails,’” Graves said.
While his successor has not been named - Delaware’s process for picking judges, which mandates alternating Republican and Democratic candidates, is being challenged in federal court - Graves is still presiding four times a month at mental health court, a state-run program overseen by the courts that allows offenders with mental health issues a pathway to recovery. The Superior Court has similar courts for veterans and drug offenders.
Graves began his legal career in 1973 after graduating from University of Maryland Law School. He spent two years as a prosecutor in Baltimore and another year-and-a-half as a prosecutor in Sussex County. In 1977, he entered private practice alongside his former law school friend and longtime Sussex County attorney, Jim Fuqua. He stayed in private practice until 1989 when he was appointed to the state bench.
“It’s probably one of the most interesting opportunities any lawyer can have,” Graves said. “You’re seeing how things come together, as they say, how the sausage is made. Usually you get good lawyering. Frequently sad facts. Some of the criminal cases break your heart. Especially when you talk about kids as victims.”
Graves said one of the most difficult trials he presided over was the Michael Chase trial in 1996, which involved a father charged with, and eventually acquitted of, with criminally negligent homicide in the death of his son.
He said a judge has less time pressures than a lawyer. During trials, one of Graves’ first instructions to the jury was to explain he was the referee in the case. Graves said one of his duties as judge is to make sure the jury stays awake and pays attention. He would call for time breaks and what he called “the seventh-inning stretch,” where he would take a short break to allow everyone to get up and stretch, like at a baseball game.
Graves said his favorite parts of being behind the bench were the good lawyering and trials.
“There’s nothing better than seeing a good lawyer on cross-examination. Very seldom do you have a Perry Mason moment; that just doesn’t happen. But, when they can slowly take apart a witness on certain things on credibility issues, and things like that - I’d rather be at a trial than back here behind the desk,” he said.
His experience as a judge lends a unique perspective when Graves’ wife, Cheryl, watches shows like “Law and Order,” which don’t work the way real-life trials do.
“I’ll start to say something, and she’ll say, ‘Just be quiet. It’s just a TV show,’” Graves said.
He said criminal trials are more difficult than civil because in a civil trial, there is discovery where each side knows what the other side’s evidence is. In a criminal trial, Graves said, everything is being heard for the first time, leading to more objections and bench rulings.
“Everybody wants to get at the same goal: justice,” he said.
Graves, the resident or highest-ranking judge at the Georgetown courthouse, had a relaxed manner behind the bench, which carries over to when he’s not on the bench.
“I’m a sloucher,” he said, slouching into his office chair on cue. Graves said he tried to not be too formal behind the bench, and to keep the trial atmosphere loose.
Graves was born in Bethel, in western Sussex County, near Laurel. Formerly known as Lewisville, Bethel’s claim to fame was building Chesapeake Bay sailing rams, shipping vessels built to be operated by a small crew. Graves has a picture in his office of the Victory Chimes, the last surviving Chesapeake Ram, built in 1900 in Bethel and now based in Rockland, Maine.
Growing up in Bethel, he said, was like growing up in Mayberry.
“It was a different world. You went out the screen door in the morning. You came back for lunch. You came back for dinner. Parents would be arrested now for what we were allowed to do. It was a very pleasant, neighborly existence,” Graves said.
An economics major at the University of Delaware, Graves said he had accepted a job at a bank in Philadelphia when he decided to switch course and enter law school. He said his father was skeptical, but agreed to support him. Graves said he has taken a similar attitude with his two sons, both of whom are in their 20s and figuring out where they want to go in life.
Graves maintains homes in Rehoboth Beach and Bethel and says now that retirement is beckoning, he’s trying to teach himself a new skill: gardening.
“Gardening is a lot harder than I thought it was. It’s amazing how fast weeds and grass can grow if you let it sit for a couple days,” he said.
Graves said he would also like to travel more. His recent vacations have been excursions to Europe but he would like to see more of America.
Looking back on his career on the bench, Graves said he was proud of what the court and its employees have accomplished.
“I feel like we have one of the best trial courts in the country,” he said.