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Delaware Supreme Court Justice Vaughn to retire

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Delaware Supreme Court Justice James T. Vaughn Jr. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DE COURTS

DOVER – Delaware Supreme Court Justice James T. Vaughn Jr. announced Tuesday that he will retire from the state’s highest court next year, likely opening a second vacancy.

Vaughn, who has served about eight and a half years of his 12-year term, will retire effective May 1, 2023. It will give Gov. John Carney at least his third appointment to the state’s five-seat Supreme Court during his eight years in office.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve since 1998 as a Superior Court judge and Supreme Court Justice. I will always appreciate the memories of working with my colleagues on the bench and with court staff in our efforts to maintain the rule of law in this state. I leave with a sense of satisfaction that I have done my best to discharge the duties of the judicial offices I have held,” Vaughn wrote in his letter to Carney, notifying him of his decision.

Carney has already nominated Gary Traynor to the Supreme Court to replace Justice Randy Holland in 2017. He then elevated Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. to the chief justice seat after the resignation of Leo Strine Jr. and nominated then-Vice Chancellor Tamika Montgomery Reeves to the high court to fill Seitz’s seat in 2019.

But Montgomery Reeves has been nominated by President Joe Biden to ascend to a seat on the federal circuit court. Her nomination is still awaiting a vote by the U.S. Senate, but was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and has the support of both Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons, meaning she is likely to be approved. If so, it would open another Carney appointment to the Supreme Court.

The vacancies and the searches for replacements will be of interest to the corporate class and state leadership alike.

Over 1 million businesses, including half of all publicly traded companies and more than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies, are incorporated in Delaware due to its business-focused equity court, the Court of Chancery, where specialized judges rather than juries rule on corporate disputes. The state Supreme Court hears all appeals from the Court of Chancery and has long set precedent in the world of corporate governance.

The Supreme Court has also been in state headlines recently, however, as it struck down same-day voter registration and mail-in balloting as unconstitutional this year in a blow to Democratic Party goals. It’s also possible that the court could hear challenges to recently passed firearm restrictions as they wind through the courts.

Vaughn, 73, first joined the bench in 1998 as the resident judge for Kent County Superior Court. He was later elevated to the position of president judge of the Superior Court in 2004. Then-Gov. Jack Markell appointed him to the Supreme Court in October 2014.

Justice Vaughn is the son of late longtime State Sen. James T. Vaughn Sr., who was also commissioner of corrections and had a Smyrna prison named in his honor.

“Like his father, Justice Vaughn has served our state and its citizens with great distinction,” Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. said in a statement. “As former Chief Justice Veasey has remarked, Justice Vaughn has a straight-forward/no-nonsense approach to the Rule of Law. The Court will miss his hard work, steady hand and unflappable nature.”

Prior to joining the bench, Justice Vaughn spent 22 years as an attorney in private practice in civil and criminal law, first at Vaughn & Vaughn, in 1976, then at Vaughn and Nicholas before joining the firm of Schmittinger and Rodriguez in 1988.

The governor will be tasked with nominating a replacement for Vaughn by next spring, and under the state Constitution, the candidate would have to be a registered Democrat to keep the court’s 3-2 partisan balance. Likewise, Montgomery Reeves would need a Democratic replacement if she is approved for the federal court.

Those picks are likely to continue to draw debate over diversity on Delaware’s courts, as without Montgomery Reeves the Supreme Court would again be all-white. The First State has recently seen increasing protests on the matter by celebrity civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton, local activists and the Citizens for Judicial Fairness, a group formerly known as Citizens for a Pro-Business Delaware that was formed by employees of TransPerfect, a company with a long, bitter history in the Chancery system.

Since backing Montgomery-Reeves to the high court, Carney has not nominated a minority candidate to either the Supreme Court or Court of Chancery despite the increasing criticism.

In Delaware, the Judicial Nominating Commission composed of lawyers and members of the public reviews applicants for openings on Delaware’s bench, recommending applicants to the governor for consideration.

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