Posted: March 12, 2003


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 highest court.

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 appointments.

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 state senators.

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.