Posted: March 12, 2003
NAME THAT JUDGE
By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer
Justice Joseph T. Walsh has sent a letter of
retirement to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, telling her he will leave May 1
and creating her first opportunity to appoint a member of the
Delaware Supreme Court.
The departure was anticipated. Walsh, who is
72, said last spring that he intended to retire this year, ending a
judicial career that began more than 30 years ago and saw him rise
from the Superior Court to the Court of Chancery to the state's
Walsh's announcement closely follows a
decision by Family Court Chief Judge Vincent J. Poppiti to take his
retirement March 31 and go into private practice in Wilmington as a
partner at Blank Rome, a law firm headquartered in Philadelphia.
Both are leaving before the end of their
current 12-year terms, with Walsh's expiring in 2009 and Poppiti's
in 2004. Their replacements will be appointed to full 12-year terms.
The tandem departures open up two of the most
prominent positions in Delaware's 54-member judiciary for Minner, a
first-term Democrat, to fill, and the state's bench and bar are
alive with speculation about who could be in line for the
Minner will draw her nominees from a list
forwarded from the Judicial Nominating Commission, a nine-member
panel chaired by Dover lawyer F. Michael Parkowski to screen
applicants. Her choices must be confirmed by a majority of the 21
Delaware is the only state that requires its
courts to be politically balanced. The five-member Supreme Court
currently has three Democrats, including Walsh, and two Republicans.
The 15-judge Family Court has eight Democrats, including Poppiti,
and seven Republicans.
While the vacancies give Minner the leeway to
select her nominees from either party, the governor is expected to
lean Democratic in her decision-making.
Most of the talk about potential replacements
is focused on sitting judges, although there is nothing to prevent
the governor from tapping someone in private practice. Both Chief
Justice E. Norman Veasey and Justice Randy J. Holland moved directly
from a law firm to the Supreme Court.
The names being mentioned for the Supreme
Court include Vice Chancellor Jack B. Jacobs from Chancery and
Superior Court Judges Richard R. Cooch, John E. Babiarz Jr. and
Joseph R. Slights III. Cooch is the court's resident judge for New
Castle County in charge of administration there. All are Democrats.
Jacobs followed Walsh once before, going onto
Chancery when Walsh left it in 1985 for the Supreme Court. If Jacobs
moved up, Minner would have an opening on Chancery to fill -- a
double appointment usually favored by governors and known around the
bench and bar as a "two-fer."
In a state where corporate law is king, the
foundation of Delaware's international legal reputation and a fount
of state revenue and lucrative law practices, the Chancery Court
where business law is made is often a stepping stone to a seat on
the Supreme Court.
Among the Supreme Court's current membership,
three of the justices previously served on Chancery -- Walsh and
Justices Carolyn Berger and Myron T. Steele.
The discussion about a new Family Court chief
judge has been somewhat tentative, waiting for a sign to show
whether Family Court Judge William J. Walls Jr., a friend of the
governor's, is interested.
As the weeks have passed without a sign, other
names have emerged: Family Court Judges Mark D. Buckworth, Robert B.
Coonin, Barbara D. Crowell and Kenneth M. Millman, as well as
Charles M. Oberly III, a former three-term attorney general.
Buckworth and Millman are Republicans, and Coonin, Crowell and
Oberly are Democrats.
All of the speculation is only a build-up to
the main event. Almost 11 years have elapsed on Veasey's term, the
only one he has said he will serve, so next year Minner will be able
to bestow the grandest judicial prize of all -- the center seat on
the Delaware Supreme Court.
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