As he prepares to exit his position as Delaware Municipal Court judge at the end of this year, David Sunderman took a moment to reminiscence about his 18 years in office, adding he’s hopeful his time on the bench has resulted in a lasting legacy of fairness.
Sunderman was elected to the office in 2001 and began serving as Delaware Municipal Court judge in January 2002. He said last week he practiced law for 25 years prior to his election and became interested in the position when now-retired Delaware Municipal Court Judge Everett H. Krueger asked him to serve as an acting judge in a few cases.
“I enjoyed that very much and that’s probably when I started thinking about the possibility of doing that, but those openings only happen from time to time,” Sunderman said.
When Sunderman took the bench in 2002, he said it had been a tumultuous time for the court, and one of his main goals was to restore public confidence.
“I felt it was very vital for people coming into the court, no matter what happened in their case, that they walked away feeling like they were treated fairly,” Sunderman said. “It’s very important that they feel like they were listened to, given an opportunity to say or do what they needed to, and regardless of the result, that they’d feel better about the court system. That’s one of the judge’s major responsibilities, to increase the reputation of the court in the community as a place where it could be trusted.”
Looking back on his time with the court, Sunderman said he feels “pretty good about most things,” but added he is especially proud of the specialized mental health docket he started.
“These dockets involve a somewhat limited number of people, but they provide a lot of benefits and hopefully an avenue to reduce recidivism,” Sunderman said.
He added there are now dockets for drunk driving cases, drug cases, and cases involving veterans at the Delaware Municipal Court. Sunderman said he is proud of the work that he and fellow Municipal Court Judge Marianne Hemmeter have accomplished with the dockets.
Sunderman added when he was elected, he knew there was a possibility that he would be the longest serving Municipal Court judge.
“I knew there was a chance because at that point, 52 years old, I figured if this job is everything I think it is, and it was that and more, I would probably, as long as the voters supported me, probably work out my career here,” Sunderman said. “I’m glad I did. Professionally, this has been the greatest privilege of my career to sit here and be the person responsible for hearing and decide cases.”
He said he feels a sense of gratitude to the community for keeping him in the office since 2002.
“You can’t help but have a sense of gratitude that the voters and people that elected you had enough confidence in you to elect you and keep you in office,” Sunderman said. “You have to earn that. It’s something you learn to appreciate. I’m grateful to so many people in the community who have supported me and supported the court.”
Sunderman said he has no immediate plans other than some travel and volunteer work, and he hasn’t made his mind up on whether or not to serve as a visiting judge.
“I’m not ready to just sit back,” he said. “There are other things I want to do that are meaningful.”
Sunderman said he’ll miss the environment at the court after he departs.
“I’ll miss the lawyers,” he said. “It’s fun and interesting to watch lawyers of every different type and how they look at a case and analyze it and try it. That’s very fascinating to me, the cases themselves. They are diverse and interesting. It never gets boring. You can hear 500, 600 drunk driving cases a year, but you can find they are all unique, all different, and all effect people. That makes things alive.”
Sunderman said he’ll miss the staff at the municipal court the most.
“We have a great team,” he said. “We get along well together, we work well together. We work hard, but we’ve learned to have fun. Our probation staff, our bailiffs are just very highly qualified. They do a great job and have good people skills and want to do things the right way. Working through cases and problems together. It’s definitely a team effort.”
Sunderman said in most cases, the municipal court is the only experience the average person will have with the court system, so it’s vital that the court leaves a positive impression.
“The high, high percentage of people who see a courtroom in this state will see a municipal court,” Sunderman said. “So, we are kind of front and center of where people come. Their impression of the court system, to some degree, is going to be formed by what happens here. Our courts at the forefront. We see so many cases and so many people. Deep impressions are left about the court and the court system, and we have a great opportunity to make a good impression and that’s what we want to do. That’s something you never quit working on, because it starts the minute they walk through the door.”
Sunderman’s court will be passed on to newly sworn-in Judge Kyle Rohrer, who was elected in November, and Sunderman said he believes Rohrer will keep up the good work of the court.
“Our job here is to make it as sensible as possible and make it efficient,” Sunderman said. “I’m sure that’s what will continue to happen. Judge Rohrer is going to do a terrific job, he’s well prepared.”
Glenn Battishill can be reached at 740-413-0903 or on Twitter @BattishillDG.