Posted: Jan. 30, 2014


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

It was Solomon! It was Hammurabi! It was the next chief justice of Delaware!

If anything came through the confirmation hearing for Leo Strine Jr., it was he intends to think big.

He got a mandate to do it, too, as the Senate voted 20-0 with one absent on Wednesday to approve Strine's nomination by Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, for a 12-year term to lead the Supreme Court and all of the state's judiciary.

He also looked like he had the backup for it, because the presiding judges from the Superior Court, Family Court, Court of Common Pleas and magistrate courts were there to watch. (Curiously, no Supreme Court justices, though, and as for the Court of Chancery, all Strine needed was a mirror.)

It only took about an hour and a quarter, all of it laudatory, from the time Strine sat down for a hearing before the Executive Committee until the roll call by the full Senate. He has 30 days under the state constitution to conclude his work as chancellor and take his oath as chief justice to replace Myron Steele, who retired in November.

Not surprisingly, Strine displayed a deft mind during the hearing. His intellect has never been in doubt, and the most serious question hanging over him, a temperament that can be bruising, was approached only gently by Gary Simpson, the Republican minority leader, who asked Strine if he had the personality for the Supreme Court.

"Yes," Strine said. "In fact, I think one of the things I enjoy doing the most, and I think I have a demonstrated track record, is working cooperatively with folks who have positions of stature."

Key words: of stature. This was probably not reassuring to the lawyers whose lesser stature can have them thinking they are Strine chum.

Meanwhile, Strine-the-chief-justice-to-be sounded like Solomon with a touch of Yoda-like Jedi grand master when he proposed to chart the future of the Supeme Court, only after conferring with the four sitting justices and divining "why things are the way they are."

He also came across like the reincarnation of Hammurabi, the Babylon law-giver, when he suggested the criminal code ought to be revised.

This included a discourse on undersized flounder. It is a criminal misdemeanor to fish for them.

Strine called himself a defender of undersized flounder -- and apparently of their right to grow large enough to suffer the saucepan later in their poor little lives -- but observed it would be better for the state if it did not have to prosecute people for catching them and better for the people if they did not wind up with a criminal record. Instead, a civil violation would probably do.

The senators were appreciative. As always, they acted utterly mystified about who could have passed such a law. Legislative amnesia strikes again.

Strine was in his element in the chamber with its members of stature. It was his fourth confirmation in some 15 years, twice as vice chancellor, once as chancellor and now this.

Even before, he was a regular in Dover as the counsel to Tom Carper, when the U.S. senator was the Democratic governor, although in those days Strine was regarded as such an enfant terrible, it put his original appointment in 1998 in serious doubt.

When he thanked the Senate for making him the chief justice, he rightly made special mention of Nancy Cook, a former senator he called his "third mom" along with his mother and mother-in-law.

Cook, whose clout made her known as the "Queen of Legislative Hall," was the key to the convoluted negotiating that got Strine to the bench, aside a senator's son and another senator's nephew. She was there to watch this time.

Both sides of the aisle, the Democrats in the majority and the Republicans in the minority, are believers these days in Strine, who is a Democrat.

Harris McDowell, a Democratic senator, said, "He was my choice. Very bright, progressive."

Brian Pettyjohn might not have been a Republican senator without Strine. As chancellor, Strine decided a court case that let Pettyjohn be substituted on the ballot in 2012 for a candidate who quit the race as he was about to be indicted for child sex crimes.

"I told him that," Pettyjohn said.

So stand by. Strine made a passing reference to Courts 2000, a blueprint adopted for the judiciary at the turn of the century. A new one could be irresistible, say something like Vision 2020? It would marry a year on the threshold of a new decade to the clarity of 20/20 eyesight.

Throughout Strine's appearance he kept joking about his receding hairline. It was like he was thinking so big, even beyond the criminal code and the courts, to a bead on the laws of Nature to overturn male pattern baldness, too.