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Delaware’s overworked bankruptcy court could be getting four new judges, bringing the total on the bench in Wilmington, Del., to six, if a congressional conference committee agrees to the proposal, which is part of a bill U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle predicts will be approved. The four-judge proposal is part of comprehensive bankruptcy legislation that has been the subject of negotiations for a year between the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, each of which approved its own version. Until now it had appeared Delaware was in line for only two new bankruptcy judges, but during discussions at the staff level, the House suggested doubling the number and the Senate agreed, according to members of Castle’s congressional staff. The senators and representatives assigned to the conference committee have yet to schedule a meeting to consider the proposal themselves. Two of the three members of Delaware’s congressional delegation are conferees. U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Democrat, has been on the committee all along, arguing for extra judges for Delaware, while Castle, a Republican, was added recently. Castle and Biden aren’t equally confident about whether the four-judge proposal will prevail at the committee level. Biden is being considerably more cautious. Castle regards it as all but certain. “He’s very pleased that we will receive at least four new judges for the state of Delaware and will continue working at it,” said Elizabeth B. Wenk, the congressman’s press secretary. Biden believes Castle’s optimism, as well as any discussion of the negotiations, is premature, perhaps unwisely so. “Sen. Biden has been pushing for this for a very long time. We are not there yet. It is still in conference committee,” said Margaret Aitken, the senator’s press secretary. “Typically we don’t release anything that’s in conference committee until the conference report is released because, by doing that, it could jeopardize some of the provisions in the bill that we want. We don’t want to endanger any of the provisions we’ve worked so hard for, that could benefit Delaware,” Aitken added. The legislation overhauling federal bankruptcy law has been stuck in conference since March 2001. Drafted chiefly to stiffen filing requirements for individuals, it is a measure Delaware’s influential financial services industry favors, but the state’s bankruptcy bar and bench have been monitoring its status as a means of relief for the overburdened court. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington is one of the nation’s busiest and a forum of choice for complex corporate reorganization cases filed under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code. A federal study found Delaware actually should be assigned eight or nine judges to handle the bankruptcy caseload. Instead, the court has been getting by with two judges — Peter J. Walsh and Mary F. Walrath with periodic assists from the U.S. District Court judges in Wilmington and a series of visiting judges from other states. Bankruptcy judges, who serve 14-year terms, are appointed in Delaware by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The new interest in creating a six-judge bench for Delaware was the result of realizing that the proposal for a four-judge bench was based on old data, according to Castle’s staff. Bankruptcy lawyers say new judges can’t get here fast enough. The court is at capacity now, they say. “If that were a possibility, it certainly would be a welcome relief to the federal bench here,” said Charlene D. Davis, who practices at The Bayard Firm in Wilmington. James L. Patton Jr., who practices at Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor in Wilmington, said the court docket is so crowded that some cases that could and should be filed here are going elsewhere. “Our current judges are in a state of crisis by being overworked,” Patton said. “We desperately need new judges. Four is a more realistic number than two.”

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