Some say ‘it’s time’ for person of color on Delaware Supreme Court

Delaware’s Supreme Court has never had a black, Latino or Asian American member. Some want Gov. Carney to “correct the record’ when filling a looming vacancy.

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The Delaware Supreme Court (State of Delaware)

Delaware has never had a black, Latino or Asian American justice on its Supreme Court.

But with the pending resignation of Chief Justice Leo Strine, a groundswell is forming to change that.

Strine informed Gov. John Carney in a letter this week that he was resigning nearly midway through his 12-year term. Strine did not indicate his future plans.

All members of the five-person court have been white. Currently, there are four men and one woman. There have been two women on the Supreme Court during its history.

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The Delaware Supreme Court has never had a black, Latino or Asian member. The current justices, from left, are
Collins J. Seitz, Jr., Karen L. Valihura, Leo E. Strine, Jr., James T. Vaughn, Jr. and Gary F. Traynor. Strine has announced that he will step down this fall. (State of Delaware)

Delaware is one of 18 states that have never had a black justice, according to the nonprofit group BlackPast, which studies African American history.

Delaware’s governor selects judges for all courts from a list provided by a nominating commission that reviews applications. It’s up to the Senate to confirm or reject a nominee.

The looming vacancy led state Sen. Darius Brown, D-Wilmington, to issue a statement urging Carney “to consider the lack of racial and gender diversity when it comes to the historical makeup of the highest court in our state.”

Brown’s statement said the opening “provides us an opportunity to correct that record.”

Brown, who heads the Senate Judicial Committee, would not agree to an interview with WHYY.

But retired Superior Court Judge Charles H. Toliver IV, who is one of a handful of black jurists who have served on that court, told WHYY that he and other attorneys of various races have periodically discussed the all-white makeup of Delaware’s highest court.

Retired Superior Court Judge Charles H. Toliver IV says ‘it’s time’’ for Delaware to have a Supreme Court justice who is black. (Courtesy of Charles H. Toliver Jr.)

Toliver once applied to the Supreme Court when a vacancy arose, but did not get selected.

“I think there are qualified, more than qualified candidates who happen to be African American who can fill the job and if there is a vacancy they should be considered and it is time,’’ Toliver said. “I can’t say why no governor did anything before this point in time. You can speculate as I could but I have no information as to what happened or why.”

Greg Sleet was once Delaware’s chief federal judge and the only black judge to serve on the U.S. District Court. He agrees with Toliver about the Supreme Court

“It’s well past time that we see someone elevated to that position, someone of color, and certainly there is, in my view, it’s long, long overdue that an African American sit on that court.”

Sleet said there’s more than a dozen qualified candidates “who might have an interest and I could certainly generically encourage them to apply.”

Kiadii Harmon, who heads the Multicultural Judges and Lawyers section of the Delaware Bar Association, says a more diverse court is a better court. (Courtesy of Kiadii Harmon)

Kiadii Harmon heads the Multicultural Judges and Lawyers section of the Delaware Bar Association. Speaking for himself and not the legal group, Harmon says a more diverse court, not only along racial but also socioeconomic and cultural lines, makes a stronger court.

“All other things being equal,” Harmon said, “having a person with a different ethnic and cultural background on the Supreme Court will help the Supreme Court to serve the people of Delaware, which is its ultimate function in my mind.”

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