Posted: Dec. 12, 2006


Catch 'um, snatch 'um & latch 'um for life

Judge Kent A. Jordan had better be ready for some heavy flak.

No, not when he moves from the U.S. District Court to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, now that the U.S. Senate has voted to elevate him, but when he attends a holiday lunch next week.

Jordan is a "Latchum boy." No matter how old he gets, no matter how far in life he goes, no matter if he becomes the chief justice of the United States someday, he always will be a "Latchum boy" -- one of the law clerks for the late Judge James L. Latchum, who sat on the U.S. District Court from 1968 to 1983.

Latchum was an able judge, as endearing as he was exacting. He was as funny and colorful a speaker of the English language as there ever was -- part Milford country boy and part Princeton grad, both of which he was. He was also such a remarkable influence in the lives of his law clerks that they maintain their ties with a holiday lunch, nearly three years after he died in January 2004 when he was 85 years old.

Latchum knew how to pick them. It is no small tribute that three of the five judges on the Court of Chancery, the jewel of Delaware's legal system, are "Latchum boys" -- Chancellor William B. Chandler III, Vice Chancellor John W. Noble and Vice Chancellor Donald F. Parsons Jr. So is former Attorney General Charles M. Oberly III.

One thing about Latchum -- as much as he loved the U.S. District Court, he did not have much use for the appellate court where Jordan is headed. Latchum preferred sitting solo, not on one of those panels where the work is done on the higher courts.

"If I make an error, I want it to be my own," Latchum once said.

Not that Latchum worried about errors. Some years ago, Parsons recalled Latchum's attitude toward the prospect of being reversed -- "It was not his fault if two or three judges on some higher court made a mistake."

Chandler had no doubt what Latchum's reaction would have been to Jordan's new assignment. "He'd say, what in tarnation are you doing that for, boy?" Chandler said.

The holiday lunch will be at the Essex, a little Wilmington eatery where Latchum liked to take his clerks for home fare like meat loaf, mashed potatoes and green beans.

This time the menu also will have Jordan roast and Jordan toast for the new judgeship. "That's going to be a good thing to toast," Chandler said.

Bill Lee exits stage right

William Swain Lee is about to start his second tour as a former Sussex County Republican chair.

Lee told the Sussex Republicans last week at their Christmas party that he is stepping down from the post he accepted in March 2005. It was thought at the time that he had been elected to a two-year term, and although a recent review of the bylaws showed it was actually a four-year term, Lee decided to stick with the original timetable.

Lee's replacement will be selected on Jan. 8. The consensus choice appears to be David M. Burris, a Sussex County real estate agent who came forward to run the get-out-the-vote operation after Lee was slowed by surgery in September. Burris is a third-generation politician, the son and grandson of Republican state legislators. His father John M. Burris ran for the U.S. Senate in 1984 and governor in 2000.

Lee, who will be 71 next week, is stitching together an admirable collection of "former" titles. He is a former Superior Court judge. He is a former candidate for governor. He already was a former Sussex County Republican chair because of a stint he did from 1973 to 1977, before he went on the bench.

"Former" does not mean "finished," however. "I don't intend to get out of politics. January 8 will be my last mandatory meeting," Lee said.

Lee also is keeping his day job at the law firm of Bifferato Gentilotti Biden & Balick, where he is involved in the very lucrative field of mediation, resolving disputes before they go to court. It is an attractive second career for ex-judges, and the firm's star at it is Vincent A. Bifferato Sr., an old colleague of Lee's from the Superior Court.

"Actually, I'm doing a lot of work. I don't know what happened," Lee quipped. "As Biff said, if he had known he could make this much money, he'd have quit being a judge a lot sooner."