Posted: March 19, 2004
A SUPREME GAME OF MUSICAL CHAIRS
By Celia Cohen
The replacement for Delaware Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey, who is retiring next month, is all but certain to be drawn from his fellow Supreme Court members, Delaware Grapevine has learned.
Three justices -- Carolyn Berger, Randy J. Holland and Myron T. Steele -- are said to be in the running for one of the state's most prestigious posts, an appointment that not only brings with it the center chair on the highest court here but also the leadership of the 54-member judiciary.
Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the first-term Democrat who will appoint the chief justice subject to Senate confirmation, is expected to receive a list of candidates Friday from her Judicial Nominating Commission, according to Joseph C. Schoell, the governor's legal counsel.
The list is confidential, but the names of the three justices said to be on it circulated quickly through the state's inquisitive and vitally interested bench and bar and made their way to the Grapevine.
Judicial watchers give the edge to Steele, who is a Kent County Democrat like Minner and has served on all the major courts, followed by Holland, who has been on the Supreme Court the longest, and then Berger, who could make history as the first woman to be chief justice; but anything goes in judicial nominations when the governor alone makes the determination.
Minner also has the right to reject the list and request a new one, but it seems implausible she would not find someone suitable among applicants who collectively have spent more than 30 years on the Supreme Court. Holland has been there since 1986, Berger since 1994 and Steele since 2000.
As significant as this appointment is, the bench and bar seem to be regarding it with curiosity more than intensity, perhaps because no wild-card candidates were expected and none appeared.
Minner's choice will succeed Veasey after he retires at the end of his term on April 7, and the governor is expected to announce her nomination at about that time, Schoell said. The chief justice serves a 12-year term at the highest annual salary in state government, currently $152,500. By comparison, the governor receives $114,000.
The next chief justice will be Delaware's seventh, dating from the creation of the modern Supreme Court in 1951, responsible for presiding over a five-member bench that hears civil and criminal appeals. The court draws its luster in part as the last word on the corporate cases that come from the Court of Chancery and give Delaware its international reputation in business law.
The only justice who did not apply for a promotion was Jack B. Jacobs, who joined the court only last year, according to people familiar with the judicial selection process.
Under the state constitution, Delaware's courts must be balanced politically. The current Supreme Court has three Democrats in Berger, Jacobs and Steele and two Republicans in Veasey and Holland. It means that Minner can choose a chief justice from either party, but she has to appoint a Republican to fill the fifth seat on the bench.
This next appointment appears to be generating more intense speculation among judges and lawyers than the one for chief justice. They are wondering whether Minner will play it safe by naming someone from Chancery or the corporate bar, or whether she will yield to the Superior Court judges who want one of their own elevated, or whether she will seek diversity for a court that has had 19 men and one woman, all of them white, in its history.
That conjecture is for another day.