Posted: Oct. 9, 2014
By Celia Cohen
Poetic justice has made Jim Vaughn Jr. a justice. That, and a unanimous confirmation vote by the state Senate.
It has been a strange and winding road, not to mention one of the most noted deals in the history of the Delaware court system, that has taken Vaughn from a modest law practice in Kent County to the Superior Court and now to the Supreme Court.
Vaughn's latest ascent came Wednesday when the state Senate, called back to Dover by the governor for nominations that could not wait until the General Assembly returns in January, zipped through a special session in 16 minutes, the highlight of which was a 21-0 vote on Vaughn, and lit out of Legislative Hall.
The state senators have their priorities. They interrupted the campaign season for official business, but not for very long.
It was at another special session in another October, 16 years ago in 1998, when Vaughn's judicial journey began. He was a trading chip.
Tom Carper, now the Democratic senator, was the governor. It was his intention to make his 34-year-old legal counsel a vice chancellor on the Court of Chancery, the storied business court, but it was not going to come easily.
People may have heard of the governor's counsel. He was Leo Strine Jr., a legal prodigy to be sure, but he had galled too many legislators with the pre-judicial version of the lethal style he is known for today, and it was payback time.
As one senator said about Strine at the time, "Maybe the problem is some of us have gotten to know you very well."
A lot of state senators were prepared to vote against Strine for vice chancellor, and Carper had to piece together a majority the old-fashioned way. He bargained for it, and a big part of the price was a judgeship for Vaughn, who happened to be the son of Jim Vaughn Sr., a Democratic state senator from Kent County.
It is safe to say neither Strine nor Vaughn Jr. would have been a judge without the other. As judicial deal-cutting goes, it was right up there. Not much else has come close, except maybe the one benefiting Ruth Ann Minner and Jane Brady in 2005, when Minner was the Democratic governor and Brady the Republican attorney general.
That was a three-fer. In exchange for making Brady a judge, Minner got to appoint her own attorney general and clear the way for Beau Biden to be elected for the Democrats in 2006.
Meanwhile, the linkage between Strine and Vaughn lived on. It was the deal that kept on giving.
As the years passed, Strine was promoted to chancellor and Vaughn to president judge. It put them in position to vie earlier this year, along with others, for chief justice.
Just because Strine got it did not mean this twosome was kaput. Another spot on the Supreme Court opened when Carolyn Berger, a justice who was miffed she was passed over for chief justice, turned in her notice.
Strine being Strine, it is said he pushed a little too hard for the vacancy to go to Joe Slights, a former Superior Court judge, and earned himself a lesson in the separation of powers. In a no-brainer, the nomination went instead to Vaughn, who is still being treated all these years later like the state Senate's favorite son.
So strong is the bond that it caused a slip of the tongue for Patti Blevins, the Democratic president pro tem, when she welcomed Vaughn on Wednesday to the Senate's proceedings.
"Our first nominee is Senator James Vaughn. I'm sorry, I do that every time. Your Honor, I apologize," Blevins said.
Vaughn's confirmation went swimmingly. There was not even a ripple when Gary Simpson, the Republican minority leader, inquired if Vaughn, who is 65, intended to serve a full 12-term, and Vaughn said he did.
Given his family history, this should not have been a surprise. Vaughn Sr. spent 27 years in the Senate from 1980 to 2007, until he was 82, and only left when the Grim Reaper came calling. Who knows, Vaughn Jr. could turn up in 12 years to go for another term.
Vaughn has 30 days to take his oath and join Strine on the Supreme Court. There they will be, yoked together again, as they have been from the beginning.
The judicial gods are generally a stern lot and rarely get a laugh, but they just did.