Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. on Wednesday called on lawmakers to “think boldly” in allocating funds for the Judiciary’s biggest capital project, renewing calls to accelerate the construction of two new Family Court facilities in Kent and Sussex counties.
Strine in recent years has made the plea a staple of his annual request to members of the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee, the legislative panel panel tasked with writing the state’s appropriations bills.
Strine said the project, estimated to cost between $150 million and $200 million, was desperately needed to address security and other concerns at the current facilities, where there is no way to separate litigants, and judges are forced to use the same elevator as prisoners. But he warned Wednesday that if funding continues at current levels, it would take at least 10 years to complete the courthouse in Sussex County.
The lack of a comprehensive investment from the state, he said, was particularly frustrating, given the role of the legal services industry in propping up the formation of business entities—which accounts for 40 percent of the state’s revenue.
“What we’re urging you to do is to think boldly,” he said. “We can do this in a fiscally responsible way. It is our major industry.”
“If this was the Port, or this was Chemours, how many dollars would we throw at it per job? Well, we need to start looking at legal services in the same way, especially because when an industry is your number one producer of revenue, you might give it a little love.”
The Judiciary plans have the two courthouses in tandem, and in a similar design, in order to save on costs.
Officials have already started the process of buying land, and it is actively exploring the possibility of public-private partnerships to build and maintain the two courthouses. Strine said that approach could get the facilities built quicker, but it would also straddle the state with long-term obligations to pay them off.
Strine also acknowledged that the Family Court should have been incorporated into the Kent County Courthouse, saying the Judiciary held part of the blame
“If we put another floor on it and put the Family Court in there and had space for the [Justice of the Peace] Court, we would be done,” in Kent County, he said. “The Judiciary is part of the reason that didn’t happen. We didn’t always play well with each other.”
The JFC, which has been holding hearings with state agencies to mark up Gov. John Carney’s recommended budget, does not authorize capital expenditures. That task is left to the Bond Committee, which is scheduled to hold similar meetings in April.
But Strine said the work of the two committees was intertwined and that the Judiciary planned to prevent a more concrete proposal to both panels in the near future.
As for the Judiciary’s operating requests, Strine asked lawmakers to convert three contracted court interpreter positions to full-time, salaried jobs and to increase state funding for legal services to the poor.
Meanwhile, state Attorney General Kathy Jennings met with the same committee Wednesday to outline her budget priorities for the Department of Justice. Among her requests were proposals to increase the pay of DOJ lawyers and to have the state cover their required bar dues.
Jennings, who took office in January, also said she was preparing a loan forgiveness proposal to present next year as a tool for recruiting and retaining high-caliber attorneys.
Lawmakers are required to pass a final budget for the 2020 fiscal year by July 30.