How Does the Delaware Supreme Court Work?
The Delaware Supreme Court was founded in 1951 to act as the highest tribunal and court of last resort in the state of Delaware. The court tends to most direct appeals from the Family Court, Superior Court, and Court of Chancery, as it is the sole appellate court in the state (Article IV, Delaware Constitution)..
However, the Supreme Court’s mandatory appellate jurisdiction of the lower courts’ final civil and criminal rulings does not extend to specific interlocutory orders (non-final orders), certified questions, and the issuance of writs of prohibition mandamus, certiorari, and quo warranto. For these, the Supreme Court applies its discretionary jurisdiction, i.e., the court can opt to review or reject these cases,
Art. IV § 11 of the Delaware Constitution covers the full extent of the Supreme Court’s legal authority. This law also gives the court exclusive jurisdiction over the admission and discipline of lawyers, and the enaction of administrative policies for the judiciary. The court has 5 arms that carry out its lawyer disciplinary and admittance duties: the Board of Examiners, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC), the Lawyer’s Fund for Client Protection (LFCP), the Commission on Law and Technology, and the Commission for Continuing Legal Education.
Like other state courts, a set of rules guide the actions of the Supreme Court, other than the state legislature. Litigants who want to learn about the court’s appeal and operating procedures can read the Supreme Court Rules, Title 10, Chapter 1 of the Delaware Code, the Appellate Handbook, the Citizen’s Guide to Filing an Appeal in the Supreme Court, and the Delaware Supreme Court Internal Operating Procedures manual.
Self-represented (or pro se) individuals will also find the Self-Help Guide to Appeals helpful. Generally, they can file appeals with the court in person or by first-class mail:
Supreme Court of Delaware
Clerk of the Supreme Court
55 The Green
Dover, DE 19901
Appellants favoring the in-person method can file their petitions between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., from Monday to Friday, except holidays. The location for In-person filings in Kent County is the Supreme Court’s official address. For New Castle and Sussex County, the filing sites are as follows:
New Castle County:
The Law Library, 2nd Floor, Suite 2500 at:
Leonard L. Williams Justice Center
500 North King Street
Wilmington, DE 19801
Sussex County Law Library
Sussex County Courthouse Annex
5 East Pine Street
Georgetown, DE 19947
Attorneys representing case parties will typically use the File & ServeXpress system to file appeals electronically.
The Supreme Court judicial officers are called “Justices.” Before 1951, the Supreme Court consisted of three justices. This number was increased in 1978 per Art. VI § 2. Presently, five justices, comprising a chief justice and four justices, hear oral arguments, examine written briefs, and render opinions for the court. A Historical List of the Supreme Court Chief Justices, from 1951 to date, can be found on the state judiciary’s website.
The Supreme Court justices are selected by the Governor, approved by the state’s Senate, and serve twelve-year terms. The reappointment of justices follows this same procedure. The minimum qualifications for appointment as a Supreme Court justice include:
- Citizenship in the state of Delaware
- A license to practice law in Delaware
- Membership of a major political party
The last requirement exists due to the Delaware Constitution, which promotes partisan balance in its judicial system—a specific number of the justices must hail from the same political party. As such, in the Supreme Court, three of the justices must belong to the same party and the remaining two to another major political party.
In Delaware, Supreme Court justices must hear and decide all matters assigned to the court (nearly 500 to 600 cases per year). 30% of these cases are determined by oral arguments. Oral arguments before a three-justice panel take 20 minutes per case party, whereas each party arguing before a five-justice panel is allowed 25 minutes.
A three-justice panel decides most cases brought to the court. The justices only sit en Banc (the complete five) when the three justices cannot agree unanimously (two out of three) or when it is a death sentence case.
Now and then, a Supreme Court justice can recuse himself or herself from a case when a conflict of interest exists. For instance:
- When a justice has a personal bias or prejudice.
- When the justice has a financial interest in the outcome of the proceeding, either personal or borne by a member of the justice’s household.
- When the justice is the spouse or domestic partner of a case party (litigant, lawyer, trustee, material witness, etc.)
Rule XIX of the Supreme Court’s procedural manual covers the voluntary disqualification or replacement of justices within the state. Upon disqualification, a retired justice, Superior Court judge, or Court of Chancery judge may replace the justice.
Delaware’s Supreme Court has only one location. Below are the hours, contact information, and physical address of the court:
55 The Green
Dover, DE 19901
Phone: (302) 739–4155
Fax: (302) 739–3751
Hours: 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m., Monday-Friday
Residents of the state and other parties interested in obtaining the case records of the Supreme Cout can visit this location to make their inquiries. Per the state’s public records law, it is possible to get electronic and print versions of a record.
The Clerk of the Supreme Court grants electronic access to case records through public access terminals located at the courthouse. Paper copies are available as well, but the requester must pay a fee to obtain copies.
An individual who is a non-case party may be restricted from inspecting or copying a case record if it has been sealed or made confidential by the court or by law—for example, medical treatment and diagnosis records, juvenile records. Additionally, certain parts of a record are usually not accessible to the public, e.g., social security numbers, dates of birth, names of minor children, financial account numbers and other personally identifying digits, etc.
Curious members of the public can also view the opinions and orders of the Supreme Court online and watch live and recorded oral arguments of non-confidential cases heard in the Supreme Court.