Delaware takes pride in being the first state to
join the Union, on Dec. 7, 1787. At the very top of the state’s court
Web site, visitors are reminded that Delaware’s system is “The First
The court system’s structure is in some ways a
bit more complex than in many states. Delaware has seven primary court
venues: Justice of the Peace and Alderman’s courts at the lower end of
the spectrum; Family Court; he Court of Common Pleas; Superior Court,
which is the state’s chief trial court venue; the Court of Chancery;
and, the Supreme Court.
About Delaware's Supreme Court
Delaware Supreme Court is the state’s only court whose primary
jurisdiction is the appellate. The Supreme Court receives direct
appeals from the
Court of Chancery, the
Superior Court and the
five Supreme Court justices, presently led by
Chief Justice Myron K. Steele. Justices are nominated by the
governor, and if confirmed by the legislature they are appointed to
serve 12-year terms. In an interesting effort to balance the court, by
law the Delaware Supreme Court must be composed of three justices from
“one of the major political parties,” (Republican or Democrat) while
the other two must be from the opposing party.
The justices have final appellate jurisdiction in
criminal cases in which the sentence rendered by a lower court exceeds
certain minimums, in final judgments on civil cases, and for certain
other orders of the Court of Chancery, the Superior Court and the
Family Court. The Supreme Court has discretionary jurisdiction to
issue writs of prohibition, quo warranto, certiorari, and mandamus, or
to accept appeals of some non-final orders or certified questions.
The Supreme Court also is the administrative head
of the Delaware court system. The chief justice, in consultation with
his colleagues on the court, sets administrative policy for the court
system as a whole. In this role, the Supreme Court maintains various
arms to help manage the job, including: The
Board of Bar Examiners, which considers the applications and test
results of those seeking admission to the state bar; the
Commission on Continuing Legal Education, ensuring that legal
professionals maintain their level of competence; the
Lawyer’s Fund for Client Protection, a fund from which monetary
relief is presented to clients who suffer financial loss as the result
of a dishonest lawyer; and the
Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which regulates the practice of
law by investigating and, if warranted, prosecuting lawyer misconduct.
The Supreme Court’s online information offerings
include: links to its
opinions and orders;
recordings of oral arguments; a list of
administrative directives; a
searchable court calendar; and
information in e-filing court documents.
DE Superior Court
Superior Court is Delaware’s court of general jurisdiction, with
original jurisdiction over both criminal and civil matters except
equity cases. The court has exclusive jurisdiction over felonies and
almost all drug offenses. In civil matters, the Superior Court’s
authority to award damages is not subject to monetary maximums.
The Superior Court also serves as an intermediate
appellate court, fielding appeals arising on the record from the
Court of Common Pleas, the
Family Court (criminal matters) and a number of state
administrative agencies. Appeals from the Superior Court are taken to
the Supreme Court.
Because of Delaware’s small size, there are only
three counties, and thus three Superior Court venues. Led by the
“president judge,” James T. Vaughn Jr., courtrooms are operated in
New Castle County, in
Kent County and in
Sussex County. Online phone, fax and e-mail directors are
maintained online for all three courts:
Other online information and services of the
Superior Court include:
searchable court calendars; the court’s
opinions and orders; and a page on
Project Rightful Owner, an effort to return more than $5 million
in sheriff’s sale funds to the persons who should receive them.
Delaware Court of Chancery
Handling important matters that fall outside the
jurisdiction of Superior Court, the
Delaware Court of Chancery has jurisdiction to hear all matters
relating to equity. The tribunal deals largely with corporate
litigation, trusts, estates and other fiduciary matters, disputes
involving land deals and questions of title to real estate, and other
commercial and contractual maters.
The Court of Chancery is responsible for
developing corporate case law for the state of Delaware. Appeals from
the Court of Chancery rise to the
Delaware Supreme Court.
The court has five judges, or “chancellors” and
“vice-chancellors,” led by
Chancellor William B. Chandler III. The judges are appointed to
contact list for Chancery Court is available online, as are the
opinions and orders, and its recommendations for the
best practices in e-filing of court documents.
Delaware Family Courts
Delaware Family Court has extensive jurisdiction that covers
virtually all family and juvenile law matters. All civil appeals,
including those relating to juvenile delinquency, go directly to the
Supreme Court, while criminal appeals arising from Family Court
are directed to the appropriate
The Family Court’s chief judge, presently
Chandlee Johnson Kuhn, presides over family courts, their
judges (up to 17 allowed by law) and their
associated staff members in all three Delaware counties.
The Delaware General Assembly has given the
family courts authority over a broad array of issues, including:
juvenile delinquency, child neglect, dependency, child abuse, adult
misdemeanor crimes against juveniles, child and spousal support,
paternity of children, custody and visitation of children, adoptions,
terminations of parental rights, divorces and annulments, property
division, specific enforcement of separation agreements, guardianship
over minors, imperiling the family relationship, orders of protection
from abuse and intra-family misdemeanor crimes.
Family Court, however, does not have jurisdiction
over adults charged with felonies, nor with juveniles charged with
first- or second-degree murder, rape or kidnapping.
Among the numerous online resources for Family
Court are: information about the
Court Appointed Special Advocate program for children (CASA); a
child support calculator; and information on
Delaware's Court of Common Pleas
Court of Common Pleas holds jurisdiction over civil cases where
the amount in controversy, excluding interest, does not exceed
$50,000. The court also handles misdemeanor criminal cases except for
certain drug charges, and some motor vehicle violation cases,
including habitual offender matters involving motorists. The court
also is responsible for holding preliminary hearings in all felony
Additionally, the Court of Common Pleas has
Traffic Court, convening on Tuesdays, for New Castle County.
The court is an appellate venue for lesser
courts. It handles appeals from both the Justice of the Peace and
Alderman’s courts on criminal matters. Appeals from the Court of
Common Pleas arise to
Chief judge of the Court of Common Pleas is
Alex J. Smalls. He heads a system of courtrooms in all three
Delaware counties, employing
Case Opinions from the Court of Common Pleas, the court’s
administrative orders, and the court’s
searchable calendar all are available online.
Delaware's Justice of the Peace Court
An entry point into the court system is often the
Justice of the Peace Court. Here, cases of a civil nature can be heard
if the matter in dispute is valued at less than $15,000. In criminal
cases, the Justice of the Peace Court can hear certain misdemeanors
and most motor vehicle cases (excluding felony driving offenses).
Justices of the peace may also act as committing
magistrates for all crimes. The chief magistrate is presently
Alan Davis, and a
host of justices of the peace serve the three Delaware counties.
Appeals from Justice of the Peace Court arise to
the Court of Common Pleas.
The chief magistrate’s
legal memoranda are available online. Other useful information
regarding Justice of the Peace Court includes: How to start or respond
civil action; how to initiate or respond to a
landlord/tenant dispute; how to
collect a judgment in your favor; how to start or contest a
garage-keeper’s lien; how to
obtain title to abandoned property; and information about
Delaware's Alderman’s Court
Authorized by town charters, the
Alderman’s Court system in Delaware has a jurisdiction limited to
misdemeanors, traffic offenses, parking violations and minor civil
matters occurring within the cities that chartered the court. Specific
jurisdictions can vary by town.
Appeals, if filed within 15 days, are taken de
novo (for a new trial) to the
Delaware Court of Common Pleas.