Posted: June 9, 2003
By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer
After two gubernatorial terms for Democrat
Thomas R. Carper and one for Democrat Ruth Ann Minner, something
unforeseen has happened to the Delaware judiciary.
Four of the state's five major courts have
presiding judges who are Republicans.
The state Supreme Court has Republican E.
Norman Veasey as its chief justice. The Court of Chancery has
Republican William B. Chandler III as its chancellor. The Superior
Court has Republican Henry duPont Ridgely as its president judge,
and as of last week, the Family Court got Republican Chandlee
Johnson Kuhn as its chief judge. Only the Court of Common Pleas has
a Democratic chief judge with Alex J. Smalls.
This is the situation after 10 years of
Democratic governors naming the judges, all of whom were confirmed
by a state Senate under Democratic control. What in the name of
separation of powers is going on?
Part of it is that it happened so slowly, with
each appointment made because of its own unique circumstances, that
nobody was paying much attention. "I'll be honest, I haven't looked
at it. I will from now on," Minner quipped.
Another part of it is the deeply bipartisan
nature of the judiciary. Delaware is the only state that requires
its courts be as politically balanced as possible -- which means,
for example, that the five-member Supreme Court has three
Democrats and two Republicans on it. Even so, there is nothing
to prevent a Democratic governor from favoring Democrats for the top
Yet another part of it is the qualifications
of the presiding judges and their availability at the right place at
the right time.
Still, a lot of it can be explained this way:
Thurman G. Adams Jr.
Adams, a plain-speaking Bridgeville Democrat
who knows his politics inside and out, has been a state senator for
more than 30 years, longer than anybody in Delaware history. Since
January he has been the Senate president pro tem, the chamber's
More importantly in this case, Adams has spent
better than 26 years as the chairman of the Senate Executive
Committee, the panel with jurisdiction over the governor's nominees
-- including judges.
Tom Carper, the U.S. senator who was governor
from 1993 to 2001, once was heard to say that he had appointed more
than two-thirds of the state's 54 judges, only to have Adams put him
"I've confirmed 100 percent of them," Adams
In analyzing the Delaware judiciary, it pays
to remember that there actually are three major political parties in
the state -- Democrats, Republicans and Sussex County. Adams is an
undisputed power in Sussex County, which plays politics under its
own set of rules. Party labels usually pale beside personal
relationships, and that is what accounts for a number of the
"I don't worry about that [political
affiliation]," Adams said. "It's looking at what we have."
If Adams is looking at judges, governors are
looking at Adams. This is as pragmatic as it is constitutional with
the Senate's traditional role of advice and consent.
"Any governor needs to be attentive to the
legislature and people in the legislature. It is a matter of
appointment and confirmation. No governor wants to take the risk of
being turned down," said James R. Soles, a political science
professor emeritus from the University of Delaware.
All of this is not meant to imply that judges
get appointed because of their connections. Nor is it meant to imply
that they get appointed without them.
This Republican reign of judges has evolved
over three gubernatorial administrations, beginning with Republican
Michael N. Castle, who was governor from 1985 to 1993 before being
elected to the Congress, and continuing through Carper and Minner.
Governors only can do so much to shape the judiciary, not only
because of the requirement for political balance, but also because
judges serve 12-year terms, while governors are elected for a
maximum of two four-year terms.
Castle appointed two of the Republican judges,
naming Veasey as the chief justice in 1992 and Ridgely as Superior
Court president judge in 1990. Ridgely was reappointed last year by
Minner -- which was no surprise, because sitting judges are almost
never turned out, although it has happened. (It should be noted that
Castle, like his successors, crossed party lines to give the Family
Court a Democratic chief judge in Vincent J. Poppiti, who recently
Carper appointed Chandler in 1997, and
Minner's nomination of Kuhn was confirmed last week.
Adams is proud to take credit for the role he
played in elevating three of the four. He is particularly proud of
Chandler, who beat the political odds to become the chancellor. It
was good that Chandler was a consensus choice among the bench and
bar to lead the court that gives Delaware its international
reputation for corporate law, but it perhaps was even better that he
was a fellow Sussex Countian.
"He's a Republican, but when you've got an
opportunity to appoint someone like Bill Chandler, you don't want to
miss that opportunity," Adams said.
Ridgely is from Kent County. Today he heads a
court that is regarded as tops in the country by the U.S. Chamber of
Commerce, but earlier as a lowly Senate attorney, he had the good
sense to cross the aisle and consult with Adams on legislation.
"I was one of his best supporters when he was
nominated," Adams said.
Kuhn, who is from New Castle County, had
the background for chief judge that Minner said she was looking for
-- a woman with Family Court experience -- but Kuhn also was
fortunate to have a father-in-law who was Adams' roommate at the
University of Delaware.
"She's a great person, and she has great
ideas. I'm proud to support her," Adams said.
With Kuhn, however, the Republican string of
presiding judgeships may be running out. The next opening is for
chief justice next year, when Veasey has said he will retire. The
two candidates most often mentioned are Justice Myron T. Steele, who
is a Democrat, and Justice Randy J. Holland, who is a Republican,
but . . .
"There are a serious Democratic contender and
a serious Republican contender," Professor Soles said, "but that
will give the governor a chance to appoint a Democrat."
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