The Court of Chancery’s overall caseload declined for the third straight year in 2018, as the court underwent a historic expansion that added two new judges to the bench, according to a report published Wednesday by the Delaware Judiciary.
The annual report, prepared by the Administrative Office of the Courts, showed that filings in the nation’s pre-eminent business court dipped nearly 4.5 percent to 959 last year, compared to 1,004 in 2017. Dispositions fell 19.6 percent to 973 in 2018, from 1,211 the year before.
The decline came as the Chancery Court bolstered its ranks from five to seven judges in the first expansion since 1989.
The move came on the heels of a 2017 study of the Chancery Court’s workload trends, which found that the number of Delaware-registered business entities had grown 500 percent to more than 1.2 million over the past 25 years. According to that study, the Chancery Court’s case mix reflected a significant uptick in complex commercial litigation, on top of its traditional docket of corporate governance cases. Corporate and commercial cases, which are individually assigned to judges, consume the vast majority of the time and attention of the court’s judicial officers, officials said.
According to the 2018 report, Chancery Court filings and dispositions last year were at their lowest levels since 2010, when filings started to rise after the 2008 financial crisis.
Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court, which also has massive influence in developing corporate law, received 646 new appeals in 2018, up from the 533 filings it saw in 2017. Total dispositions, however, fell from 604 in 2017 to 583 last year, a slight decrease of 3.4 percent. Of those cases, 55 were appeals from Chancery Court rulings.
According to the report, the high court met its benchmark for deciding 99 percent of all cases within 290 days of the filing of a notice of appeal, and disposed of all its cases within a one-year timeframe. Appeals were decided on average of 30 days from the date of submission to the date of final decision.
The 2018 calendar year marked the end of a dramatic reshuffling of the Chancery and Supreme courts, as Gov. John Carney nominated Morgan T. Zurn and Kathaleen S. McCormick to fill the two newly created seats on the Chancery Court’s bench. Zurn and McCormick’s confirmation last year doubled, from two to four, the number of women to serve on the court during its 226-year history.
In the report, Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. touted efforts last year to improve the work-life balance of Delaware attorneys by encouraging courts to re-evaluate best practices and policies related to court processes, filing deadlines and scheduling.
But the report also highlighted the Judiciary’s top priorities for the coming year, including an ambitious “community court” initiative, which aims to provide a framework for the state’s problem-solving courts and make the justice system more accessible to Delaware residents.
In Wilmington, the Judiciary plans to open a community resource center this year in the Leonard L. Williams Justice Center’s law library, and the AOC has already begun work on transforming courthouse law libraries into self-help centers for litigants.
The community court, the report said, would offer evening hours once a week to address local concerns and provide sessions preparing defendants for job-readiness training. According to the report, officials are hoping to learn from the programs and eventually extend the concept to downstate courthouses in Kent and Sussex counties.
“In 2019, the Delaware courts will work to transform the largest courthouse in our state into a genuine ‘Community Court,’ one where there is only a right door, and never a wrong door, for criminal defendants and civil litigants in need of help to become more productive and law-abiding citizens,” it said.
The report’s release coincided with Strine’s annual budget address in Wilmington, where he was expected Wednesday to detail for lawmakers the Judiciary’s funding request for the upcoming fiscal year.