Posted: Oct. 31, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

When a lawyer becomes a judge, the intimidation factor is known to go up. In the case of Mary M. Johnston, it likely went down.

Johnston was robed Friday as a Superior Court judge after working as the chief disciplinary counsel for the Delaware Supreme Court, a post that is the legal equivalent of internal affairs, striking fear in lawyers like the knock on the door in the dark of the night.

Not only did Johnston shed her disciplinary role, but the investiture at times resembled a roast, and even the dignity of the judiciary took a knock or two.

It began when the bailiff, calling the proceeding to order, mangled the names of the presiding judges. Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey became "E. Henry Veasey," leading the state's highest judicial officer to bemoan that he already was experiencing what his wife warned him would occur when he retires next year.

"You go from 'who's who' to 'who's he?' I think I'm there already," Veasey quipped.

The mischief was chalked up to the day. "You never know what will happen on Halloween," Veasey said.

The question was raised, why Halloween for something as serious as a judicial installation? William D. Johnston, the husband of the new judge, explained there was family significance. It was Halloween 22 years ago that the two had their first date, and he noted that then as now, Mary Johnston wore black, although she accessorized then with a witch's hat instead of the ceremonial red sash of a Superior Court judge.

"I think it was a good choice today," said Bill Johnston.

Bill Johnston also happens to be a past president of the Delaware State Bar Association and a partner at Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, one of the top law firms in Wilmington. Clearly outranked now, he said, "Judge Johnston gave me permission to refer to her as 'Mary' for the purpose of this proceeding."

The public robing, which brought about 150 judges, lawyers, family and friends to the New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington, followed a private ceremony last month when Mary Johnston took her judicial oath.

Johnston, 45, of Wilmington, replaces Judge Haile L. Alford, who died in August, on the 19-member Superior Court, which hears both criminal and civil cases. She will serve a 12-year term at a current salary of $140,200 a year.

Johnston was praised for refashioning the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, emphasizing intervention over punishment. Andrea L. Rocanelli, the acting chief disciplinary counsel, credited the office's success under Johnston to its makeup -- four lawyers with nine children among them.

"It was they who made the task of disciplining lawyers easy by comparison," Rocanelli said.

The office under Johnston also was famous for its love of food, and Rocanelli warned the judiciary what it was getting with its new colleague. "Mary comes from a long and illustrious line of utensil lickers," she said.

In a more serious moment, Johnston memorialized Alford, and she promised to take to heart the instruction from the Book of Micah -- "to do justice, and to love mercy and to walk humbly."

As for utensil licking, there was no promise of reform.