Posted: May 26, 2004
"OUR LAW AND OUR LIBERTY ARE IN COMPETENT HANDS"
By Celia Cohen
Because of the circumstances, there had to be pomp for Myron T. Steele's investiture as the seventh chief justice of Delaware's modern Supreme Court.
For more than an hour and a half Wednesday afternoon, there were speeches and singing, oath-taking and ovations, the pageantry unfolding inside the Kent County Courthouse on The Green in Dover in a courtroom packed full of 306 state officials, judges, lawyers, family and friends -- 286 people crowded into seats and 20 more in a standing room overflow.
The formality seemed strange for the fuss-aversive chief justice. When Steele joined the state's highest court four years ago, he went for a record for speed, banning all speeches as he simply had his good friend Vice Chancellor Jack B. Jacobs take two minutes to swear him in on the Supreme Court steps on the same Green.
This time Steele could not get away with a ceremony stripped to the essentials, even if he did bring back his good friend, now Supreme Court Justice Jack B. Jacobs, to give him the oath again.
This time Delaware was making a chief justice, installing the leader of a court system that is the state's pride, the forum for the signature corporate law cases that have given it international stature, and so there had to be pomp and a remembrance of what was at stake.
Retired Superior Court Judge Vincent A. Bifferato Sr., who was one of the speakers, put it plainly. "That special relationship of our law and our liberty is today being placed in competent hands," he said.
Still, that laid-back style kept seeping through. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, who appointed Steele, a fellow Kent County Democrat she has known for years, could not help but note, "I have to say, it's going to be very difficult not to say, 'Hey, Myron.'"
Also, there was Steele's wit to keep matters from becoming too high-flown. He was the only one who dared to mention the excruciating incident that had threatened his nomination -- an ill-timed conversation with a Dover lawyer before a court decision was made public, the result of miscommunication between Steele and his secretary Roylene Marvel.
In Steele's own way, he saluted his secretary. "Roylene is not at fax machine school today," he quipped. "I recognize your patience and good sense of humor as we have traveled that gravel road together, sometimes barefoot."
The ceremony began briskly. Outgoing Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey called the session to order. Retired Family Court President Judge Vincent J. Poppiti led everyone in singing "God Bless America." Steele took his oath and then the center spot on the five-member court, as Veasey moved to a seat in posterity.
The speeches began with the governor's. Minner delivered a curiously humble address to the chief justice as the leader of a co-equal branch of government, as opposed to giving remarks to someone whose rise she had created.
"We wish you success. We wish you to remain a dear friend," Minner said.
Even beyond what the governor said, there could be no doubt of the importance she attributed to the investiture. Not only was she there, but so was her kitchen Cabinet, lobbyists Robert L. Byrd and Edward R. "Ned" Davis and Dover lawyer F. Michael Parkowski, who chairs her Judicial Nominating Commission.
Parkowski gave a speech, too, and he was bursting with pride to have a fellow Kent Countian lead the court. Steele was only the second, coming along 40 years after Charles L. Terry Jr. left the bench to be elected governor.
"I intend to be very provincial," Parkowski said. "We in Kent County are proud that one of our own has gone right to the top."
There was also a sense that Kent County may not be finished. Minner saw to that. When she was not congratulating Steele in her speech, she was praising Superior Court President Judge Henry duPont Ridgely, another Kent Countian who is being mentioned as a likely candidate to fill the Supreme Court vacancy that opened with Veasey's retirement.
Through a parade of speakers, the bench and bar took care to remember those who had come before and those who were yet to come.
Former Chancellor William T. Allen recalled earlier chief justices like Terry and Clarence Southerland, the first of the modern era that began in 1951, and also Superior Court Judge William G. Bush III, a friend and mentor to Steele.
Common Pleas Court Judge Rosemary Betts Beauregard, who clerked for Bush, remembered walking in on the judge as he talked in his chambers with Steele, then a Dover lawyer, and was shocked to be told to pull up a chair, to be welcomed to the fellowship.
"I hope the torch will burn as bright when we pass it on," Beauregard said.
There were plenty of anecdotes to be told. Some had to do with Steele's devotion to the University of Virginia, where he received his undergraduate and law degrees, and to its founder, Thomas Jefferson. Steele even had Superior Court Judge Charles H. Toliver IV, another U.Va. man, on hand to lead the Pledge of Allegiance.
Other stories had to do with life on Steele's 100-acre farm, like the time he was hurrying to court and did not have time to deal with a black snake in the house, so he left a note for his wife Beth, "Black snake in the bedroom." (She scooped it up with a pitchfork and freed it outside.)
Still another came from one of his former law clerks, collectively known as "knuckleheads." Danielle Gibbs, now a Wilmington lawyer, disclosed that Steele hosts an annual dinner and dance for 50 or so clerks in Dewey Beach. "Some of you may be surprised to learn that our chief justice is a great dancer," she said.
Steele's closing was brief. "I thank you all. All of you have made an investment in me. It's now time for me to deliver on your investment," he said. "That's my pledge to you."
The session was adjourned. As the members of the Supreme Court filed out, naturally it was Steele who held the door for them. No point in standing on ceremony, not for this chief justice.