- Associated Press - Monday, February 24, 2014

DOVER, Del. (AP) - Delaware’s new chief justice urged lawmakers on Monday to proceed with caution as they consider whether to open certain Family Court proceedings to the public.

During a presentation on behalf of the judiciary to legislative budget writers, Leo Strine Jr. said the idea of opening Family Court proceedings regarding sensitive issues such as child custody makes him “really uncomfortable.”

Strine, who will be sworn in Friday as chief justice, noted that people often are forced to go to Family Court to deal with “the most intimate, painful things of human life.”

“I just think we better pause and think about that,” he told members of the Joint Finance Committee. “We have to be very careful.”

Delaware’s constitution says all courts shall be open, but many Family Court proceedings are nevertheless closed to the public because of laws passed by the General Assembly. Those closed proceedings include hearings involving adoption, termination of parental rights, custody rights and visitation, guardianship, paternity and divorce.

A state task force is studying the feasibility of opening Family Court civil proceedings to the public. Its initial reporting deadline of Feb. 15 has been pushed back two months to allow more time for public input and deliberations.

While urging caution about opening Family Court proceedings to the public, Strine, who has led the Court of Chancery, also took the opportunity to defend secret arbitration overseen by Chancery Court judges in certain business disputes.

Before being nominated by Gov. Jack Markell last month to become chief justice, Strine had served as a judge on the Court of Chancery since 1998. He became its chief judge in 2011.

A federal appeals court panel has upheld a decision declaring the secret Chancery Court arbitration unconstitutional, but attorneys for the state are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to accept the case, in which Strine is a named defendant.

In his budget presentation, Strine asked lawmakers to consider providing additional funding to the judiciary beyond what Markell has proposed for the fiscal year starting July 1. That additional funding includes more money for employee pay, new clerk positions in Family Court and technology upgrades.

Attorney General Beau Biden also asked for more money Monday beyond what Markell has recommended for his office. The additional funding requests from the Department of Justice include $128,500 for staff pay increases for next year, and $174,000 for an additional prosecutor and forensic investigator in the child predator unit.

DOJ officials said the child predator unit has dealt with increasing caseloads in recent years, with 51 arrests and 34 convictions in 2013, up from an average of 42 arrests and less than 30 convictions in each of the prior two years.

Biden, who underwent treatment at a Texas cancer center last year after becoming weak and disoriented during a family vacation, appeared engaged and alert at Monday’s budget hearing but let his deputies do most of the talking.

Biden has a long, curving scar stretching from his left ear to the top of his head. He recently shaved the sides and back of his head but is now letting the hair regrow, except for the area around the scar.

Biden, 45, quickly left Legislative Hall after his budget presentation, and reporters were unable to speak with him afterward.

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