How Does the Delaware Court of Common Pleas Work?
The Delaware Court of Common Pleas is a trial court with limited jurisdiction over certain civil and criminal cases. The Court of Common Pleas Court also has appellate jurisdiction over cases from the Alderman’s Court and Justice of the Peace Courts. Although the Court of Common Pleas has separate divisions, court practices and processes are uniform across courts and are carried out as provided in the Rule of Civil Procedure and Criminal Rules Governing the Court of Common Pleas.
Generally speaking, the Court of Common Pleas is authorized to hear and dispose of the civil and criminal cases for which it has original and appellate jurisdiction.
The Court of Common Pleas has jurisdiction over civil cases where the amount in claims exceeds $75,000 as well as:
- Motor vehicle offenses involving habitual offenders
- Change of name petitions
- Administrative appeals from the Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
The court has criminal jurisdiction in misdemeanor cases including misdemeanor drug crimes for adult persons. The court also handles criminally-charged motor vehicle offenses and holds preliminary hearings for felony charges.
The Delaware Court of Common Pleas’ appellate jurisdiction extends to the following cases:
- Criminal appeals from the Justice of the Peace Courts
- Criminal Appeals from the Alderman’s Court
- Administrative appeals from the DMV
- Civil Appeals from the Justice of the Peace Court
The majority of appeals to the Court of Common Pleas are from the Justice of the Peace Court. While a small percentage is received from the Alderman’s Court, the Delaware Attorney General may also file criminal cases directly to the Court of Common Pleas. As a general rule, all criminal defendants have a right to trial by a lawyer-judge as well as the right to a jury trial.
During arraignment, criminal defendants are required to enter a guilty or not guilty plea after which their cases are scheduled for reviews or trial depending on the subject matter. Judges of the Court of Common Pleas are authorized to sentence guilty defendants immediately or to order a presentence report. A presentence report is a detailed document featuring a defendant’s criminal history, employment history, family background, and educational background. Typically, along with the sentencing guideline, the judge utilizes the presentence report to arrive at an appropriate penalty for the defendant.
The Delaware Court of Common Pleas receives cases scheduled for preliminary hearing from the Justice of the Peace Court. The essence of the preliminary hearings is to determine if probable cause exists in felony matters. During the hearing, the prosecution is required to provide evidence that there is probable cause that:
- The alleged offense was committed
- The defendant committed the alleged offenses
If the court determines that a probable cause exists, the case is bound over to the Delaware Superior Court. Otherwise, the matter is dismissed and the defendant is acquitted.
Pursuant to the state’s Habitual Offenders Act, the Delaware Attorney General’s Office may file a petition requesting the Court to find an individual’s habitual offender status. The Motor Vehicle Code defines a habitual offender as a person who has accumulated convictions for a number of motor vehicle offenses within a specified time period. If the Court of Common Pleas finds out that a person is a habitual offender, the person’s license is suspended for five years.
Upon the filing of a civil case in the court of common pleas, the court schedules a pretrial conference between the complainant and the defendant. During the conference, both parties meet with a designated judicial officer in an attempt to narrow the issues. Also, at the conference, witnesses are called, the length of a trial is determined, and the possibilities of the settlement are weighed.
In addition to the traditional jurisdiction of the Court of Common Pleas, the court also has three problem-solving divisions responsible for adjudicating certain grassroot matters that precipitate crime. These divisions include a Mental Health Court, a Drug Diversion drug diversion, and a Community Dispute Resolution Program.
In Delaware, Court of Common Pleas judges remain in office for 12 years. Delaware judges are appointed via a merit selection process. As per the constitution, Common Pleas judges are appointed by the governor with the consent of the senate. Typically, the Judicial Nomination Commission is responsible for identifying qualified candidates fit for judicial appointments. To be nominated for the position, each judge must have been admitted to practice law in the state for at least five years. Other requirements include that the appointee must be a citizen of Delaware and a resident of the county for which they are appointed.
Unlike judges in other states, the Delaware Court of Common Pleas judges do not run for retention elections. Instead, they are retained by the same merit selection process for which they were appointed. It is interesting to note that the State of Delaware practices a partisan balance within the state’s judiciary. This means that more than half of judges must never be from the same major political party.
The Delaware Court of Common Pleas also has two commissioners responsible for accepting certain pleas, conducting preliminary hearings, handling change of name petitions, as well as other non-case dispositive matters. While one commissioner serves New Castle County, the other is assigned to both Sussex and Kent Counties.
All Court of Common Pleas judges are mandated by law to comply with the rules of the Delaware Rules of Judicial Conduct. Judges who violate these rules may be censured, suspended, removed, or retired.
The Delaware Unified Court provides a singular system where court dockets and case information may be searched or viewed. The system, known as CourtConnect, can be accessed by name, case type, and judgment. Physical copies may be accessed in person or by mail. Below are the addresses and contact details of the three Court of Common Pleas in Delaware: