Posted: Dec. 15, 2009


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The last time Delaware had a full complement of federal judges, Pluto was just drummed out of planet-hood, Beau Biden was a lawyer in private practice, and Twitter was what little birds did.

The entire solar system has moved on, but the U.S. District Court here is still stuck in 2006.

Maybe not much longer. A nomination for a new judge appears to be in the works, along with one for U.S. attorney.

"Early next year," hazarded Ed Freel, an adviser to Sen. Tom Carper. As the Democratic senior senator from the same party as the president, Carper is the prime coordinator for the Obama administration on the appointments.

Freel was mum about who is in the running, but the names are percolating through the state's porous legal circles, anyway. Justice is blindfolded, not gagged.

If all is well with the background checks, the nomination for the judgeship would go to Leonard Stark, who is already part of the federal court system as a magistrate judge, and the one for U.S. attorney would go to Charlie Oberly, who was a three-term attorney general. Both are Democrats.

When in line for an appointment, the smart approach is to say nothing. Neither Stark nor Oberly did. Both declined to talk.

It sounds ludicrous to say the eventual nominees would "replace" their predecessors. Replace? The positions have gone missing for so long, it is a wonder no one put up yellow ribbons.

The court is supposed to have four judges, but it has been one short since Kent Jordan departed three years ago for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. This is no small thing.

The Wilmington-based bench is known for its patent cases, a distinction that contributes to the state's reputation for business law. It is a vital part of Delaware's economy, not to mention its self-image as a destination for science and commerce.

With the auto workers idled and the banks in a credit crunch, the state needs all the lawyers it can get. They are every bit as valuable here as chickens.

The judicial opening has been neglected but not entirely ignored. The Bush administration nominated U.S. Attorney Colm Connolly, but it took so long that the Democratic-run Senate, seeing how the Republican White House dallied, did the same.

Connolly never came up for confirmation. With the White House changing parties, he was bound to be out of the U.S. Attorney's Office, too. He went into private practice as of Inauguration Day.

As judges go, Stark would not take much breaking in. A Rhodes Scholar who is a graduate of the University of Delaware and Yale Law School, he became a magistrate judge in 2007 when he was selected by the court's judges for an eight-year term. He functions as a junior judicial officer who gets his assignments from the judges.

If Oberly, who is 63, becomes the next U.S. attorney, he would be back in prosecution after a decade and a half. Elected attorney general in 1982, he was in the office longer than anyone else in Delaware. He lost a U.S. Senate race in 1994 and has been in private practice since.

Oberly never really left politics, though. Most significantly, he vouched for fellow Democrat Beau Biden in the 2006 race for attorney general, just as the Republicans were piling on, and he helped to raise $155,000 to replenish Biden's campaign account last year while Biden was off to Iraq with the National Guard.

With regard to a presidential appointment, it probably does not hurt for Oberly to have put himself on the line for the vice president's son.

For now, the waiting goes on. Even after the nominees are announced, they have to be confirmed by the Senate. The timing matters more to Oberly with almost a quarter of President Barack Obama's term already gone.

Stark, who is 40, is looking at lifetime tenure on the bench. With the pace of federal appointments, it might not be too early to think about his replacement.