Posted: Oct. 18, 2010


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Never has security been so tight for the swearing-in of a federal judge.

It is hard to say whether it was good timing or bad timing for the public ceremonies putting Len Stark on the U.S. District Court to happen Friday in Wilmington.

It was scheduled ages ago, when no one had any idea that Barack Obama and Joe Biden would have this very same window in their schedule to blitz into town for a campaign event for Chris Coons, the Democrats' senatorial candidate, at the Grand Opera House with the federal courthouse practically at its back door.

The presidential security was thick. Getting in the courthouse was only several steps less complicated than getting out the miners in Chile.

It did mean, however, that Biden was able to breeze into his old stomping grounds, the King Street courthouse where his Senate office used to be, to attend Stark's oath taking.

The making of a federal judge is a moment that is irresistible to the Delaware political class. Maybe it is the envy of a lifetime appointment.

The gathering drew not just Biden, but the two Democratic senators, the Republican congressman and the Democratic attorney general (who got a fatherly kiss from the Democratic vice president), along with various judges and numerous lawyers.

The place was so packed, there were no seats left when Coons and Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, arrived late from the Grand Opera House. This was some serious standing room only. 

Biden was like a political Caesar. He came, he spoke, he left.

Biden was there and gone, all in about 10 minutes, long enough to kid with Chief Judge Greg Sleet in what turned out to be a witty tutorial on constitutional checks and balances.

The two go way back. As a senator, Biden was the driving force to get Sleet appointed to be the U.S. attorney and then to go on the bench. Sleet, with the mantle of the judicial branch upon him, pretended he was going to keep the executive branch at bay.

"The fact is, he can't reverse me, so I'm first going to recognize -- obviously I'm kidding -- I'm first going to recognize the vice president of the United States of America," Sleet said.

"Mr. Vice President, you're in my courtroom now."

"May it please the court," Biden quipped, only to follow his show of respect for a co-equal branch of government by reasserting executive power.

"I can't overrule him, but this is as far as he's going. Only kidding, Greg. Only kidding, Your Honor."

Stark marveled at the confluence of events -- "That the vice president was able to be here with us, I'm without words" -- but it easily became evident that Stark was something special himself.

Stark had barely put on his robe when speakers at the event suggested that the Supreme Court was not out of reach for him. No pressure, Your Honor.

He is a University of Delaware graduate, finishing his four years there with two bachelor's and a master's degree. He was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and went to law school at Yale. Not to mention how he is recognized for his intellect, his easy humor and gentle good will.

Stark is not new to the bench. He was a federal magistrate judge, a lesser judicial officer, for three years before a presidential nomination elevated him to the judgeship. He actually began it in August, after the Senate confirmed him, but the public investiture was delayed until now.

"If I had the power to do it, I wish everyone could feel as good as I do now," he said.

Stark's appointment was not only a cause for celebration, but relief. The court system has been so shorthanded for so long, it could be a blip all its own in the state's unemployment rate.

Federal appointments rarely proceed speedily, but these days the process is all but stalled. The four-judge court has not been at full strength since Kent Jordan was promoted to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006. Just as Stark was being confirmed for that spot, Judge Joe Farnan retired.

Now the court needs a magistrate judge to replace Stark. In addition, the wait goes on for a U.S. attorney with Charlie Oberly, the former Democratic attorney general, nominated but not confirmed.

Speakers from Sleet to Biden noted the drag of the vacancies, but none more effectively than Stark himself, as he acknowledged Farnan's presence at the ceremony and relayed how much his ex-colleagues missed him.

"Since I inherited your caseload, I miss you the most."