Posted: Oct. 30, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

The swearing-in ceremony Thursday for Vice Chancellor Donald F. Parsons Jr. had the air of a merry reunion of law clerks for Judge James L. Latchum, retired from the U.S. District Court in Delaware.

It was an atmosphere that was vintage Latchum -- a no-frills session combining the law with laughter. It got right to the point and it got done.

Latchum, who served on the federal bench from 1968 to 1983, now has former clerks occupying three of the five seats on the Court of Chancery -- Chancellor William B. Chandler III, Vice Chancellor John W. Noble and Parsons.

Not that Latchum's legacy stopped there. One of the speakers at the investiture was U.S. District Judge Kent A. Jordan, another of the ex-judge's apprentices.

"He ran one of the most remarkable finishing schools for young lawyers that has ever been seen anywhere," Jordan said.

Latchum, now in his 80s, could not attend because of his health, but he sent a letter and his presence hovered. It was the essence of a man who was uncomplicated and unpretentious, pungently and humorously plain-spoken, smitten with public life and inspirational because of it.

As a judge, Latchum was so comfortable with himself that Parsons recalled he used to say about the prospect of being reversed, "It was not his fault if two or three judges on some higher court made a mistake."

Parsons, 55, of Wilmington, became the 34th member in the 211-year history of the court. He took his judicial oath in private last week, and this was the public celebration.

More than 200 judges, lawyers, family members and other well-wishers attended the ceremony at the New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington as Parsons joined Delaware's most storied court, the bedrock of the corporate law practice that has given the state an international reputation in legal circles.

Parsons, a past president of the Delaware State Bar Association, left behind an intellectual property practice as a partner at Morris Nichols Arsht & Tunnell, one of Wilmington's most prestigious corporate law firms, to become a judge.

He replaces Jack B. Jacobs, who moved to the Supreme Court in June. Parsons will serve a 12-year term, which currently pays $140,200 a year.

For most of the session, the ex-clerks joked and reminisced. Noble was the senior clerk, working for Latchum from 1975 to 1977, followed by Chandler from 1976 to 1978, Parsons from 1977 to 1979, and Jordan from 1984 to 1985.

They remembered the time Latchum became concerned about the sanctity of his chambers after the publication of The Brethren, an insider look at the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong. Law clerks were believed to be the source of much of it, so Latchum disguised his voice, pretending to be a female reporter, and telephoned his clerks.

Chandler hung up. Noble denied he even knew Latchum. Parsons asked, "How long do you think the interview would take?"

Parsons also was ribbed for the time Latchum was giving jury instructions in a trial in which one of the parties had a name of Eastern European origin. Latchum had his secretary type it out phonetically for him, but he still had difficulties, and afterwards Parsons said to the judge, "You said that man's name 42 times and never repeated yourself once."

In a more serious moment, Parsons called his arrival on Chancery a "dream come true." He confessed, "I cannot help but wonder how I will measure up."

Advice came from Jordan, a decorous sort who nevertheless released his inner Latchum to tell Parsons, "As the judge would say, now that you're starting this important job, don't get it all balled up."