Posted: June 23, 2011
CHANGING OF THE GUARD AT CHANCERY
By Celia Cohen
There are some mistakes that governors of Delaware dare not make.
For one, they had better balance the budget. For another, if they have the chance to appoint a chancellor as the chief judge of the Court of Chancery, they had better get it right.
Naturally they also have to stay away from stupid political tricks, like the South Carolina governor pretending to hike the Appalachian trail while actually romancing an Argentina firecracker, but what is at issue here is not freelance errors but official acts.
Governors who do not balance the budget do not get re-elected. The late Russell Peterson found that one out the hard way. Never mind all his visionary achievements to protect the coastline and create a 20th Century Cabinet for state government.
The voters booed Peterson when he went to the Blue-Gold football game and bounced him out of office for the red ink, and no governor has made that mistake again in the 40 years since.
Not all governors get to choose a chancellor, not with governors elected for four-year terms and chancellors appointed for 12 years, but for the ones who do, it really counts. The court is a Delaware treasure, not just figuratively but literally, with what it means in reputation and revenue as the centerpiece of corporate law.
Jack Markell, the Democratic governor in his first term, got to name a chancellor, and he settled on Leo Strine Jr., who was confirmed Wednesday by the state Senate and took his oath for a promotion on the court where he has served as a vice chancellor since 1998.
Markell spoke like someone who knew the stakes and was confident he met them.
"It's an incredibly unbelievable big deal. Chancery Court is recognized around the world as the pre-eminent court for business. There are thousands of lawyers across the country breathing a little easier today and hundreds of thousands of Delawareans," Markell said.
Time will tell. Strine is following Bill Chandler, the chancellor from 1997 until he departed Friday for a valedictory turn in private practice, and Chandler was regarded as the essential chancellor.
Chandler is vintage Sussex County, one of the last places on earth where chivalry is not dead. He was the epitome of a court where the outcome owes its allegiance to fairness, not to the unblinking letter of the law.
Strine's legal mastery is unquestioned, but if there is a caution to him, it is his wayward comedic and caustic strains that flare up here and there. Not that it necessarily hurts if some of the respect from the million-dollar lawyers in his courtroom comes from a little wariness of him.
"I will do everything in my power to ensure we have a strong Court of Chancery," Strine said. "I'm sure at times I'm going to say things that aren't the most diplomatic. I will always be mindful of the reputation of my state, but I am going to be myself."
It sounded like a promise from Strine, but who knows? It might have been a threat.
Strine's ascent to chancellor was as good as it gets. He did not appear to encounter any rivals for the nomination, there were only softball questions during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Executive Committee, and then the senators voted him in 21-0.
Tony DeLuca, the Democratic president pro tem, was the one who brought up the nomination for the vote, and all he said by way of discussion was, roll call. It looked like there might be a hitch when Colin Bonini, the Republican senator who is the chamber's resident contrarian, asked to be heard, but he just wanted to say, "Leo is one of Delaware's best and brightest."
Minutes afterwards, Strine was in the governor's office upstairs in Legislative Hall in Dover to be sworn in. This speaks to Strine's reflexive understanding of legislators, who are notoriously fickle. They can take back a vote, but they cannot take back an oath.
For Strine, going to the governor's office was something like going home. He knew it from his time as counsel to Tom Carper, the Democratic governor who is now a senator. As governor, Carper put Strine on the bench.
Markell was there with the Girls State governor who was shadowing him. "I always wanted to be Girls State governor," Strine quipped.
Old compatriots were on hand to make it celebratory, Jeff Bullock and Tom McGonigle most notably. Bullock, who is Markell's secretary of state, was Carper's chief of staff. McGonigle, who is Markell's chief of staff, was the deputy counsel to Carper, while Strine was the counsel, and then moved up to become the counsel himself.
They stood in for the family Strine did not bring along. He explained it would not be comfortable for senators to be critical, if they wanted, in front of his family, nor for his family to have to listen.
The stand-in holding the Bible for the oath was Nancy Cook, a Democratic ex-senator who earned the part. Heaven knows, she went to untold lengths years ago to have Strine confirmed as a vice chancellor when other senators challenged his temperament for it.
The executive branch nominated Strine, the legislative branch confirmed him, and the judicial branch was in this, too. Chief Justice Myron Steele tracked the proceedings from the Senate chamber to the governor's office and stationed himself in back of Strine for the swearing-in.
"I'm going to be behind Leo all the way, anyway," Steele quipped.
The state was all in. This is what Delaware does when it trusts the governor to get it right.