Posted: March 30, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey was lavished with a formal portrait and the Order of the First State, Delaware's highest honor, at an elaborate retirement dinner Monday evening, but what really had people talking was that Justice Randy J. Holland got to introduce him.

Holland and fellow Supreme Court Justices Myron T. Steele and Carolyn Berger are said to be in the running for the governor's nomination to replace Veasey, so it was an evening for checking astrology charts, scanning the heavens, swirling the tea leaves or checking the program for clues to the judiciary's future.

The chief justice is gone. Long live the chief justice.

The line of succession was clearly on the collective mind of the crowd of 525 judges, lawyers and other well-wishers at the Bank One Riverfront Center in Wilmington. R. Franklin Balotti, the master of ceremonies from Veasey's old law firm of Richards Layton & Finger, cracked that Gov. Ruth Ann Minner ought to be having a good old time.

"There are three people in this room who should have been buying you one drink after another," Balotti said.

Minner spoiled his line. "I am a teetotaler," she said.

All right, if the assemblage could not count drinks, there was at least Holland's introduction to ponder. Of the three candidates, Holland was the only one with a stint on the podium.

In the Kabuki-like politics of the judiciary, where the well-timed harrumph or the trenchant footnote have meaning, it could not be missed that Holland was showcased at a dinner arranged by the Supreme Court and the Delaware State Bar Association.

His moment in the spotlight seemed like an answering tut-tut to the perception that Minner favors Steele, a fellow Kent County Democrat, over Holland, the gentleman justice who is a Sussex County Republican, or Berger, a New Castle County Democrat who could join Minner as the first woman to lead a branch of Delaware's government.

With the constitutional requirement that the court be balanced politically, Minner can choose either a Democrat or a Republican for chief justice. She is expected to submit a name to the state Senate for confirmation at about the time Veasey ends his 12-year term on April 7.

Veasey had a royal sendoff. The bar association unveiled his official portrait, Minner awarded him the Order of the First State, and a host of speakers praised him for his, well, courtliness. Veasey is a nationally-recognized authority on ethics and professionalism in the bench and bar.

In his tenure he presided over a judiciary internationally acknowledged because of the lustrous Court of Chancery, the forum of choice for corporate law, and nationally appreciated by the robustly pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce as the best legal system in the country. He saw the judiciary grow, the courts eased into the 21st Century with new technology, and courthouses built.

The DuPont Co. may have downsized, but the courts under Veasey determinedly did their part to preserve Wilmington's standing as a corporate capital -- not surprising for someone whose springboard to chief justice was a corporate law practice.

Veasey's dinner drew the cream of state politics, not only Minner but also Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Thomas R. Carper, the two Democratic senators, and Michael N. Castle, the Republican congressman who appointed Veasey when he was the governor in 1992.

Carper warned, "Flattery won't hurt you if you don't inhale. A lot of nice things are going to be said about you tonight, pal. Just don't breathe too deeply."

Carper was right. Castle called Veasey "one heck of a good guy who has done one heck of a good job," and Biden gave him the highest praise there is, saying, "We trust you, Chief. Everyone trusts you."

Balotti, the master of ceremonies, kept the long evening going with humor. He joked that the raven-haired Veasey was going to become the national representative for Grecian Formula. He also brought a Supreme Court time-clock with a red light and beep to try to keep the speeches to three minutes, although he felt compelled to explain the device to the crowd -- for an obvious reason.

"Some of the people in the room are not real lawyers. I mean Joe Biden and Mike Castle," Balotti quipped.

Carper told a behind-the-scenes story of how Veasey became the chief justice. It happened as Andrew D. Christie, the previous chief justice, was retiring in the last year of the Castle administration, and Carper, then the congressman, was running for governor and expected to win, as he did.

At the time Democrats were alert to what they called "CTBs" -- Carper Time Bombs that Republicans could leave behind to blow up on him. They were afraid Veasey might be one of them. Carper was asked whether he wanted the Democrats to stall the nomination, so he could appoint his own chief justice, but after some consideration and consultation, he decided against it.

"As luck would have it, I stayed quiet," Carper said.

When Veasey's turn came to speak, he contented himself with thanking a ream of people, especially his wife Suzanne. He was modest, although maybe not quite as modest as Clarence Southerland, the first chief justice of the modern Supreme Court, at his retirement in 1963.

Southerland turned aside an outpouring of congratulations by recalling a sign he had seen outside a British chemist's shop, which would be called a pharmacy here. The sign read, "We dispense with accuracy."