(Return to History of the Court of Common Pleas)
The black judicial robes
appearing in the Municipal Court of the city of Wilmington
have graced individuals great and small, good and bad. From
that bench have come a United States senator, a founding partner
in one of Delaware's most prestigious law firms and an associate
judge of the Delaware Superior Court; two other judges have
gone on to be convicted or disbarred for mishandling clients'
funds. It has been a court of initiative and innovation, with
the appointment of the first African-American judge in Delaware
and another judge receiving national awards for new programs.
Yet, in its early years, there was an embarrassing political
wrangle over the single judicial appointment, which conflict
had to be resolved by the Delaware Supreme Court.
A "Mayor's Court for the City of Wilmington"
was established in 1832. Conducted by the mayor, alderman
and president of city council, or any two of them, prosecutions
were by Information, without indictment by grand jury or trial
by petit jury.
In 1883 the General Assembly, by statute,
established the Municipal Court for the City of Wilmington,
providing for a judge appointed by the governor for a term
of twelve years.
As with the earlier Mayor's Court, the new Municipal Court had jurisdiction over misdemeanors committed within the city
and offenses against city laws, as well as preliminary proceedings
in felony cases. The city solicitor prosecuted, subject to
the right of the Attorney General of the state to do so.
Witnesses were paid fifty cents per day;
any witness who failed to claim that princely sum within thirty
days discovered that the fee had been forfeited to the city.
In one interesting sign of the times, the
city judge was also empowered to conduct a "private examination
of married women parties to deeds and mortgages, in like manner
as a notary public may, for which he is entitled to receive
a fee of seventy-five cents, to be paid to the Clerk of the
Court for the use of the city."
The first Municipal Court judge was Walter Cummins. He had
studied law under the direction of Thomas F. Bayard after
graduating from Princeton in 1868 and had served as city solicitor
and counsel for the trustees of the poor in New Castle County.
Admitted to the bar of New Castle County on May 13, 1872,
he served as judge from 1883 to 1888.
He was succeeded by J. Frank Ball who had
graduated from Princeton in 1876 with an A.B. and M.A. After
studying law under Charles B. Lore, he was admitted to the
bar on April 24, 1879. Elected city auditor in 1882, he served
in that post until he was chosen city solicitor in 1887. He
was appointed to the Municipal Court bench in 1888, serving
On October 22, 1900, Governor Ebe Walters
Tunnell nominated Edward R. Cochran, Jr. as Municipal Court
Judge, but the appointment was not confirmed by the Senate
at its January, 1901 session. Subsequently, newly elected
Governor John Hunn sent to the Senate the name of Philip Q.
Churchman for the position, and the appointment of Churchman
was confirmed by the Senate.
Unwilling to concede Churchman's appointment,
Cochran then filed suit in Superior Court, questioning whether
an appointee to the office of the Judge of the Municipal Court
must be confirmed by the Senate. The Superior Court answered
in the affirmative. On appeal to the Supreme Court, however,
the lower court was reversed and the seat was given to Cochran,
on the ground that "[t]he judgeship of Municipal Court
[was] a municipal office and not within the Constitutional
provisions for confirmation of appointments by the Governor
where the salary was $500 or more yearly." During the
pendency of the litigation, Churchman had performed the duties
of the office. Judge Cochran assumed the position in his place
in January of 1902 and served until 1912. At that time Churchman
was re-appointed as Chief Judge, in which capacity he served
In 1920, Daniel O. Hastings assumed the
position of Chief Judge. He resigned in 1928 to accept an
appointment as United States senator, replacing Senator Coleman
du Pont who was in ill health, and served in that position
Following Judge Hastings' resignation, John
Faucett Lynn served as chief judge for twelve years, from
1928 to 1940, followed in turn by Henry R. Isaacs. Chief Judge
Isaacs resigned in 1946; subsequently convicted of embezzling
clients' funds, he served a prison term.
The next Chief Judge was Thomas Herlihy,
Jr. Elected Mayor of Wilmington in June of 1945, he resigned
that post to take the Municipal Court judgeship at Governor
Walter W. Bacon's request. His assignment: to "clean
up Municipal Court."
At the time of his appointment in April
of 1946, his name was not submitted to the State Senate for
confirmation. When Governor J. Caleb Boggs re-appointed him,
however, the question arose as to whether his nomination should
be confirmed by the Senate. Opinions differed; to put an end
to the matter, Governor Boggs sent Judge Herlihy's name to
the Senate where the appointment was confirmed. In 1969, with
a charge to revamp and reorganize the Municipal Court into
an efficient judicial system, Alfred Fraczkowski was appointed
as a first full time Judge of the Municipal Court. He was
appointed Chief judge of the Court in 1970. He held this appointment
until May 1, 1998 when he was appointed an Associate Judge
of the Court of Common Pleas as a result of the merger of
the Municipal Court into the Court of Common Pleas.
At the turn of the century, the legislature
authorized the appointment of a second judge, known as the
Deputy Judge, to the Municipal Court bench. The Deputy Judge
was to be appointed to a term of four years by the associate
judge of the Superior Court and was to be resident in New
Although a comprehensive review of each
Deputy Judge's tenure is not possible, some were of particular
note, such as Aaron Finger, the first Jewish member of the
Delaware bar, who later became a founding partner of Richards,
Layton & Finger. Other judges were memorable for specific
personal characteristics. For example, Judge John Lynn, who
served from 1921 to 1928, had a slight cast to his eye. An
elderly woman brought into Municipal Court before Judge Lynn
had Philip Garrett, who shared Judge Lynn's ocular characteristic,
to represent her. She lost her case. When asked how she had
made out, she reportedly replied she had not made out, but
"what can you expect of a cockeyed judge and a cockeyed
Another Deputy Judge of interest was Edmund
S. Hellings, who served from 1943 to 1961. Famous for being
very soft-spoken, he had a nickname among the defendants who
appeared before him - "Silent Death," sometimes
"Whispering Death." The story goes that Judge Hellings
whispered his sentence: "Fine, ten dollars." The
unhearing defendant politely said, "I'm sorry, Your Honor,
what is the fine?" Judge Hellings: "Fine, twenty
dollars." The defendant still did not hear the amount
so he loudly asked his lawyer to ask for the amount. When
the lawyer did, Judge Hellings replied: "Fine, forty
In 1953 the General Assembly abolished the
title of Deputy Judge and created two Associate Judge positions
(increased to three in 1969) of equal rank and salary, to
be held by individuals of opposite political parties, nominated
by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. The change of
status was to go into effect upon the end of the term or the
resignation or death of the two Municipal Court judges then
in office. Chief Judge Thomas Herlihy, Jr., a Republican,
had a second term that extended until 1970. Deputy Judge Edmund
S. Hellings, also a Republican, whose term would end February
28, 1961, would have to be replaced by a Democrat.
He was succeeded by Sidney Clark, who, having
served as Assistant City Solicitor, was appointed Associate
Judge by Governor Elbert N. Carvel in 1961. The first African-American
judge in Delaware, he resigned from the bench in 1966.
The other Associate Judges of the Municipal
Court included Leonard L. Williams who served as an Associate
Judge from 1966 until the merger of the Court with the Court
of Common Pleas in 1998. He was the last part-time judge to
serve in the Court. Carl Goldstein was appointed an Associate
Judge in 1970 and continued until his appointment as a Judge
in the Superior Court in 1991. That same year, Alex J. Smalls
was appointed to succeed him, serving with the Court for two
years until appointed as a Judge in the Court of Common Pleas.
In 1994, he was succeeded by William L. Chapman, Jr., who
filled that position until his nomination and confirmation
as a Family Court Judge in 1995. John K. Welch was then appointed
an Associate Judge in 1996 and continued in that position
until the merger of the Court into the Court of Common Pleas
when he became an Associate Judge of that Court.
Developments and Changes in the Court
Judge Herlihy, in particular, put into effect
a number of innovative programs and established more professional
procedures. One of his first moves was to abolish segregated
seating in the courtroom. Although Daniel O. Hastings stated
in his book Delaware Politics that segregation had
ended in the Municipal Court when he was judge, Judge Herlihy
found that segregated seating was in effect in 1946. A police
officer stood at the entrance to the courtroom directing the
public to one side or the other depending on their race. Judge
Herlihy put a stop to this practice.
Other procedures were initiated or formalized,
such as informing defendants of their rights, insisting on
adherence to rules of evidence and obtaining volunteer counsel
for indigent persons accused of serious crimes long before
the United States Supreme Court ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright,
372 U.S. 335 (1963).
A Housing Court and a Traffic Court were
also established. In cooperation with the Delaware Safety
Council and the Wilmington Police Department, Municipal Court
developed a Traffic School for traffic offenders, inspiring
awards from the National Safety Council.
Sentencing alternatives were explored. Municipal
Court set up a probation system; referrals for treatment of
mentally ill and alcoholic offenders began. Municipal Court
took part, with the other courts in New Castle County, in
the Delaware Trial Bail Project, a demonstration bail project
in which certain first offenders could be freed on their own
recognizance. Later this procedure became state law.
Like other courts, Municipal Court has had
to face problems due to overcrowded facilities. Starting in
1883, sessions of the new Municipal Court were held in City
Hall, the building now known as Old Town hall, located on
Market Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets. The building
also housed the offices of the Mayor, the Clerk of City Council
and the Police Department as well as the city prison. There
was a need for a new City Hall to accommodate the scattered
city offices and services. Since the County Building, located
on what is now Rodney Square, was overcrowded, the construction
of a joint city and county building was proposed. Both City
Council and the Levy Court agreed to the plan and each secured
from the General Assembly permission to erect the building
and to borrow the money necessary to build it, $600,000 for
the Levy Court and $900,000 for City Council. The "Public
Building," as it became known, standing on King Street
between Tenth and Eleventh Streets, was the result.
From the start, the space assigned to Municipal
Court in the Public Building was inconvenient. The public
could not enter the courtroom from King Street but had to
climb the stairs to the third floor from the French Street
entrance. Prisoners brought up from the cells below were crowded
into a small holding room. Defense lawyers had little space
to interview their clients. The space allotted to the office
staff was crowded, and the staff was handicapped further by
persons regularly passing through on their way to the courtroom.
From time to time Municipal Court used City Council Chambers
for a courtroom as the need arose, sometimes holding two court
In the 1970's, the court facilities were
drastically changed. Two courtrooms were designed and constructed
in the Public Building. Thereafter, further redesign was made
in the Court when the Daniel L. Herrmann Courthouse was reconstructed.
A particularly demanding period of Municipal
Court's history began with the civil disorders and riots of
1967 and 1968. The Governor declared an emergency, which brought
into operation emergency legislation, under which the Court
saw a dramatic increase in the number of arrests.
Sessions of the Court lasted well into the
night for the first weeks of each episode of riots. Lawyers
voluntarily came to the Court to assist the Public Defender's
office and to be sworn in as additional prosecutors. At the
height of the disturbances two Superior Court judges assisted
the Municipal Court. Members of the Public Defender's office
or bail project officers interviewed every person brought
before the Court. Private agencies, members of the Council
of Churches, the Delaware Conference of Christians and Jews
and other authorized volunteers were on hand, making telephone
calls to defendants' families, arranging for bail and taking
released persons home. Special hearings were held on modifications
With the assistance of other judges and
volunteers from the community, the Municipal Court rose to
the occasion and met the challenge.
From 1972 until the Court was merged with
the Court of Common Pleas in 1998, the Municipal Court developed
procedures which enhanced the operation of the Judicial System.
A case numbering system was developed based upon the year,
the month and the particular case number. This numbering system
was later adopted throughout the State. The Court developed
a bail bond form, which detailed all the obligations of the
defendant and the bail bondsman, and the form, with various
refinements, was adopted for use throughout the State. A pretrial
release system was developed by the Court in conjunction with
the Probation/Parole Department. By 1975, the Court was able
to assure that any bail set on a defendant was the result
of a detailed social and criminal background having been checked.
The procedure resulted in the lowering of bail in many cases
and increased granting of unsecured bail.
The Court established a Court Commissioner
system so that the City of Wilmington had a judicial officer
available on a 24-hour basis and on all weekends. A refined
case scheduling system was developed which permitted having
separate court sessions devoted to specific types of cases
during the course of each week. The system allowed for more
efficient use of all court resources. During the period from
1970 to 1975, the Court adopted a procedure which insured
that any charge filed in the Municipal Court was based upon
the Delaware State Code and only those offenses which were
specifically required to be brought under the Wilmington City
Code were so charged.
The resources of the Court were again tested
and found to be fully sufficient when the Court was faced
with a deluge of cases resulting from mass arrests in the
Wilmington public school teachers' strike, and again when
mass arrests were made of protesters who held rallies in front
of a women's health clinic in Wilmington protesting abortion
services which were provided at the clinic. In both instances
the Court was able to hear and resolve all the cases without
disrupting the scheduling of other cases.
In conjunction with the office of the Wilmington
City Solicitor, the Court developed a Citizens Dispute Resolution
Program which allowed for the arbitration and resolution of
minor criminal matters, involving generally neighborhood disputes,
in a manner which permitted the parties involved not to end
up with a record of a criminal conviction.
The Municipal Court's history concluded
with a fitting closing ceremony on April 30, 1998 when the
last session was held prior to the Court being merged with
the Court of Common Pleas for the State of Delaware on May