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 appointments.

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 ranking member.

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 right.

"I've confirmed 100 percent of them," Adams said.

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 presiding judges.

"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 retired.)

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."