Delaware Court of Limited Jurisdiction
Justice of the peace courts are where most cases originate. Judges, also known as magistrates, are appointed to terms that are extended in successive reappointments. These courts have jurisdiction over landlord-tenant disputes, small claims issues under $15,000, as well as some misdemeanor and motor vehicle cases. Appeals of cases decided at this level go to the Court of Common Pleas for civil and criminal matters, but appeals of landlord-tenant issues are heard by a three-judge panel from this same court. There is one justice of the peace court in each of the state's three counties.
In 2015 these courts received over 414,000 cases, including about 3,500 fish and game complaints, 70,000 criminal, and more than 315,000 traffic cases as well as another 25,000 miscellaneous issues.
There are six Alderman's courts in Delaware, created by town charter and limited by geographical boundaries. These courts handle misdemeanors and violations of local ordinances. The bulk of the cases at this level take place in Newark, New Castle County, where over 12,000 cases originated in each of 2014 and 2015; there was almost an equal number of cases in the other five courts for a total of over 26,000 cases in each of the years 2014 and 2015.
Delaware Court of Common Pleas
The Court of common Pleas is presided over by nine judges and two commissioners representative of the three counties in the state. The court has jurisdiction over preliminary felony hearings, civil issues under $50,000, traffic offenses, and hears administrative appeals for motor vehicle issues. They also hear appeals of lower court decisions from the Justice of the Peace and Alderman's courts. Trials at this level are for criminal cases only. The commissioners may preside over some types of pleas and hearings but may not dispose of cases.
The total number of misdemeanor and civil cases filed before the court in 2015 was 113,471, down slightly from 2014. New Castle County accounted for over 50,000, with Kent county bringing in 29,000, and Sussex about 31,000.
Delaware Court of Chancery
The Court of Chancery in Delaware is a non-jury court that handles probate-type cases, including real property, trusts and guardianships. But its most influential role is litigation of commercial issues. Because it is the court of "'equity" chancellors may, among other things, grant temporary restraining orders to prevent the sale or merger of a company. The court's four vice chancellors and one chancellor serve 12-year terms after nomination by the governor and confirmation by the state senate.
In the past few years, the court has seen a steady 4,500 case filings per year, including in 2015 65 petitions for guardianships for minors, over 200 petitions for guardians for the infirm, four trusts, over 1,400 civil filings, and more than 2,700 estate filings.
Delaware Family Court
Family court handles divorce, child custody, protection orders, juvenile criminal cases, and guardianship of minors. The court has received more than 44,000 filings in each of 2014 and 2015, including about 5,000 juvenile delinquency cases and over 35,000 civil cases.
Delaware Superior Court
State Superior Court is a combination trial and appellate court. It handles general civil and criminal issues as well as appeals of lower court decisions. Typical cases include involuntary commitment of those with mental issues, personal injury cases, medical and legal malpractice, foreclosures, and appeals of lower court decisions of landlord-tenant issues and the state Automobile Arbitration Board. New Castle County alone accounted for more than 12,000 cases before the court in 2015, and Sussex and Kent counties together contributed about 6,000, for a total of about 18,000 cases filed in each of 2014 and 2015. There were about 200 jury trials on criminal cases in 2015, resulting in 151 convictions. The court hears about 250 civil appeals and 400 criminal appeals per year.
Delaware Supreme Court
Judges for the state Supreme Court are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the general assembly for 12-year terms. The court is politically balanced by party affiliation. Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court includes appeals of criminal decisions handed down in lower courts, reviews of lower court decisions, and as final arbiter on questions of the state constitution. The court received over 400 criminal appeals and over 200 civil appeals in each of 2014 and 2015, with another 20 or so original applications for hearings.
Delaware Notable Court Cases
A partial decision on a case before the Court of Chancery in 2009 was upheld on appeal by the state Supreme Court, resulting in a multi-million dollar decision against the defendant. After a judge ordered the man to preserve records on his computer's hard drive the man wiped data from the computer's temporary file space, winning him a $3.2 million loss in the case. When he appealed the Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision but admonished courts to be specific in ordering "'document retention and preservation orders" on electronically-stored information.
In a case pending in 2016, media magnate Sumner Redstone was ordered to submit to a medical evaluation to determine his mental acuity in a case over control of the Viacom Company of which he is controlling stockholder. A Chancery Court judge ordered a coordinated, "'dignified" examination of the 93-year-old due to allegations that he's not the one trying to replace Viacom company directors. The case was brought in Delaware and Massachusetts by the Viacom CEO who alleges that Redstone's daughter is actually calling the shots in taking control of the company.