Attorneys for Gov. John Carney are asking a federal judge in Wilmington to slash a request for attorney fees in the case of a New Castle County lawyer who successfully challenged a provision of the Delaware Constitution requiring political balance on the state’s courts.
Carney, who has appealed the decision, on Tuesday said that a ruling on James R. Adams’ fee request should be tabled until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit can weigh in. But the governor also argued that any award the court grants should be reduced by 40 percent because Adams had only achieved partial success.
Adams, who is represented by Finger & Slanina partner David L. Finger, last month requested $22,900 to cover the cost of litigating the case through summary judgment.
U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Mary Pat Thynge of the District of Delaware on Dec. 6, 2017, ruled in favor of Adams, a graduate of Widener University Delaware Law School, who argued the 120-year-old requirement violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by restricting government employment based on party affiliation.
On Tuesday, Carney, who is responsible for nominating judges, did not dispute that Adams had prevailed in the case.
However, Carney challenged Adams’ assertion that he had secured a “complete victory,” saying that Thynge’s ruling did not specifically address constitutional provisions preventing one political party from being represented by more than a “bare majority” of the judges on Delaware’s courts.
“Because plaintiff did not achieve success in challenging the constitutional provisions relating to the Family Court and the Court of Common Pleas, or in challenging the bare majority provisions for the Delaware Supreme Court, the Superior Court or the Court of Chancery, defendant requests a 40 percent reduction in any award the court may choose to grant, as such a reduction would reflect plaintiff’s partial success in challenging Delaware’s constitutional provisions governing the composition of its courts” Carney’s Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor attorneys wrote in an 8-page brief.
Finger, meanwhile, said in an interview that reduction of attorney fees was not warranted in any case where a plaintiff has won “substantial” relief from the court.
“We won a very substantial issue,” he said. “Moreover, the issue [of party balance] will apply to Family Court and the Court of Common Pleas because the bare majority requirement still requires making political party a determining factor [in nominating judges],” Finger said.
Adams, a registered independent, said he’s been prevented in the past from applying for judgeships because of the constitutional mandate that judicial seats be split between Republicans and Democrats.
Proponents of the provision—codified in Article IV, Section 3 of the state constitution—have said it safeguards a fair, independent and impartial judiciary that attracts talent to serve in its ranks. But Adams and others have argued the mandate improperly boxes out independents and creates the impression the state’s judiciary is tinged with political bias.
Carney is also represented by Delaware Department of Justice attorneys Ryan Patrick Connell and Christian D. Wright, of the department’s Civil Division.
Carney’s spokesman and a representative of the DOJ did not immediately respond Wednesday to request for comment.
The case is captioned Adams v. Carney.