Chief justice submits final budget request

DOVER — Chief Justice Leo Strine made his final scheduled appearance as the head of Delaware’s judiciary Monday. The chief justice, who plans to step down from the bench at the end of the month, presented his budget request to state officials, although he outlined it in writing earlier this month.

Budget hearings began early this year to allow Chief Justice Strine to stick to his planned departure date, with his post not set to be filled immediately.

These fall hearings represent the next step in the budget process, giving state departments a chance to present their spending requests for the fiscal year starting next July. From here, the governor works with the Office of Management and Budget to prepare his budget recommendations, which are officially unveiled and presented to lawmakers in January.

Although budget asks are submitted to OMB and the governor ahead of time, the presentations enable budget officials to get more information on certain things and hear from members of the public.

The chief justice’s letters, sent to OMB Director Mike Jackson Oct. 15, were an opportunity to deliver a final message, and the priorities as detailed in them should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Chief Justice Strine’s tenure.

His asks in the letters are more general rather than specific dollar amounts, calling on the state to provide more legal support for the poor, fully fund a judicial technology fund, expand the court’s workforce, raise pay for state workers and partner with the private sector to fund new judicial facilities.

The total operating request is for $104.3 million. The judicial branch’s current year operating budget is $100.7 million.

The chief justice once again urged decision-makers to fund new Kent and Sussex Family Court facilities, something he has fought for for years. The current buildings, he and many others have said, are cramped and unsafe.

Leo Strine

The current capital budget includes $6.9 million for planning of new Kent and Sussex Family Court buildings and, on the insistence of the chief justice, creates a committee “to evaluate public-private partnership and traditional financing options” for new courthouses.

In the spring, Chief Justice Strine spoke in favor of a public-private partnership, telling lawmakers Delaware could sign a contract with a business or other entity that would build and maintain two new courthouses in Dover and Georgetown.

Constructing new courthouses entirely through state funding would cost more than $200 million over the next three years, he wrote in one of the letters to OMB.

“That these courthouses are dangerous and outmoded and subject Delawareans in the most sensitive of cases to feeling disrespected has been known since early in the century,” he wrote. “This must be the year the state of Delaware either commits to replacing them soon or admits that providing secure and dignified places to resolve family disputes is not something the state cares about. Sometimes it is that simple.”

The state also has an urgent need for more support services, such as interpreters, law clerks, commissioners and security personnel, Chief Justice Strine wrote.

He also again emphasized what he sees as a critical need to raise employee pay.

“What should be shocking is that we are a decade into a recovery and there has not been one year when state employee wages have kept pace with inflation, not one,” he wrote. “Ultimately, the quality of the services we deliver depends on the quality of our employees. All three branches must make it a shared priority.”

Other than a line praising Mr. Jackson for being easy to work with, the letters do not note the chief justice’s impending departure.

Chief Justice Strine revealed his retirement in July. Although he did not say why exactly he is leaving the bench, he is expected to enter private practice.

He has held the judiciary’s top office since February 2014. Prior to that, he sat on the Court of Chancery for 16 years, the last three as chancellor.

Gov. John Carney last week nominated Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. for chief justice and Vice Chancellor Tamika Montgomery-Reeves to fill his seat. The Senate is expected to consider both nominations in a special session Nov. 7.

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