Posted: Jan. 9, 2014


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Jack Markell made a little history when he named Leo Strine Jr. as his choice to be the next chief justice, but mostly the decision played it safe.

That is, if anything about Strine can be said to be playing it safe.

The announcement came Wednesday from Markell, the Democratic governor, that he was nominating Strine to be elevated from chancellor to chief justice to preside over the Supreme Court and lead the Delaware judiciary.

That is, if anything can be said to be an elevation from the Court of Chancery, which is the state's most storied court, even to go to the Supreme Court, which is the state's highest court on the judicial organizational chart but mostly has the sacred trust of backstopping Chancery to protect the state's pre-eminence in corporate law.

It is Chancery which is the keystone that makes Delaware the corporate capital of the world, the magnet that pulls in all those business incorporations and corporate law firms, the engine estimated by the secretary of state's office to account for 40 percent of the state's budget.

It is like the military-industrial complex, except here in Delaware it is the corporate-legal complex.

Making Strine the chief justice is another sign of the commitment to it and the sway it holds, and in that sense he was a safe and sound selection by the governor, a message of business as usual.

Markell called Strine "well-positioned to build upon our courts' deserved reputation for excellence."

The timing of the nomination means Strine can be considered for confirmation by the state Senate once the General Assembly returns to Dover on Tuesday for a three-week session in January.

He would replace Myron Steele, who retired after 25 years on the bench, including nine years as the chief justice, and serve a 12-year term at a salary of $200,631 a year.

Strine would be the eighth chief justice since the creation of the modern Supreme Court in 1951, and surprisingly he is bucking the historical odds to get there. Even with the state's long line of celebrated chancellors, he would be the first chief justice to come directly from a lower court.

Five of them -- Terry, Wolcott, Herrmann, Christie and Steele -- were sitting justices, and the two others -- Southerland and Veasey -- were plucked right out of a corporate law practice.

At 49, Strine represents generational change, but otherwise, he is more of the same, another white male situated at the peak of the judiciary. Only one woman has ever sat on the Supreme Court or Chancery, and it is the same woman.

It is Carolyn Berger, a justice who was said to be on the short list with Strine for chief justice, as were Jim Vaughn Jr., the Superior Court president judge, and Jan Jurden, a Superior Court judge.

As conventional a choice as Strine seems, his elevation would still be something of an act of faith, because he does not come with the standard judicious temperament. Instead, he is a grandiose and contradictory figure, as brilliant and comic as he can be defensive and browbeating.

When Strine went on the bench as a vice chancellor in 1998, he described himself as a "mad wizard," and it is never certain which Strine will show up, either the judicial wizard or the madman.

Strine has the soul of a heckler, sometimes funny and sometimes abusive, as he showed in a classic putdown of a legal argument as "at best fit for a discussion by a Red Bull-fueled group of nerdy second-year law school corporate law junkies, who find themselves dateless (big surprise) on yet another Saturday night."

It is like the line about the law and sausages. With Strine, the state might get great law but the sausage-making, too.