Posted: April 12, 2004
COURT OPENS PRELIMINARY INVESTIGATION ON STEELE
By Celia Cohen
With a possible nomination for chief justice at stake, Supreme Court Justice Myron T. Steele finds himself facing a preliminary disciplinary investigation by the Court on the Judiciary, a rarely-used panel that works in secret to handle complaints about judicial misconduct, Delaware Grapevine has learned.
The investigation involves Steele's actions in an appeal that went against hundreds of Sussex County mobile-home tenants in an incendiary case allowing the removal of rent caps.
It was set in motion by Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey last Wednesday on the final day of his 12-year term, although he is continuing to hold over for as long as 60 days until his replacement assumes office.
Veasey assigned the preliminary investigation to Charles S. Crompton Jr., a past president of the Delaware State Bar Association from the Wilmington law firm of Potter Anderson & Corroon, and he directed Crompton to deliver a report by Tuesday, April 13.
The disciplinary matter comes at an excruciating time for Steele, one of three candidates Gov. Ruth Ann Minner is said to be considering for chief justice, along with Justices Randy J. Holland and Carolyn Berger.
The governor's decision, which was expected late last week, appears to have been delayed by this new wrinkle.
Under the rules of the Court on the Judiciary, its proceedings are confidential. "I cannot confirm or deny the filing of a complaint against any judge," said Margaret L. Naylor, the court clerk.
Steele, as the subject of the complaint, has the right to waive confidentiality. He could not be contacted Monday, nor could Crompton, and Veasey was on vacation.
Steele is under scrutiny because of what happened after he participated in a three-justice panel on the rent-cap appeal. An account of his actions was included in a March 23 letter that Veasey wrote and sent to the lawyers in the case before the disciplinary proceeding began.
According to Veasey, a panel of Steele, Berger and Justice Jack B. Jacobs heard the rent-cap appeal on March 16 and came to a decision the same day. Steele directed the ruling to be faxed to the lawyers immediately, although it was not to be filed officially until the next day.
The faxes were not sent, but Steele did not know it when he spoke to John W. Paradee, the lawyer representing the mobile-home park corporation that won the case. Steele told Paradee what the outcome was.
According to a story in the Cape Gazette, the tenants found out they had lost from a manager of the corporation. They were outraged and accused Steele of favoritism and impropriety for disclosing the ruling to only one side in the case.
Veasey in his letter did not appear inclined to pursue the matter further. He wrote, "This is an unfortunate, but innocent administrative error that the court regrets. But because it was innocent and in good faith, there is no basis for disciplinary action against either Justice Steele or Mr. Paradee."
That was then. This is now. John G. Walsh, a mobile home tenant from Rehoboth Beach, filed a formal complaint April 5 with the Court on the Judiciary, and Veasey ordered the preliminary investigation.
"I have received a phone call that there is at least a preliminary investigation," Walsh said. "Later I got a phone call that the investigation is confidential."
The Court on the Judiciary is a seven-member bench consisting of the five Supreme Court justices, the chancellor of the Court of Chancery and the president judge of the Superior Court. It has the power to censure or remove judges for willful misconduct.
When the court receives a complaint, the chief justice either dismisses it or refers it for preliminary investigation to one or more members of a standing Preliminary Investigatory Committee of lawyers and non-lawyers. The committee currently has six members, including Crompton.
If the matter goes forward after the preliminary investigation, the court appoints an examining officer to conduct a hearing and issue a report. If there are grounds to proceed, then the full Court on the Judiciary convenes.
Unless the court orders a suspension or removal, the case is closed without public disclosure. Whatever happens with Steele may remain a mystery.