Posted: Oct. 29, 2015
A LONG TIME COMING
By Celia Cohen
A century and a half has gone by since emancipation. Nearly a century has passed since women got the vote. Not that anyone could tell, looking at Delaware's renowned Court of Chancery.
Until now. An African-American woman will finally sit on the court, after the state Senate on Wednesday unanimously confirmed Tamika Montgomery-Reeves, who was nominated by Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, for vice chancellor.
It puts Montgomery-Reeves, a corporate law practitioner, an oath-taking away from replacing Don Parsons, a vice chancellor leaving the court with the expiration of his 12-year term last week.
Patti Blevins, the state Senate's Democratic president pro tem, called the nomination "historic."
Another way to put it might be "delinquent." Also "mortifying," considering what court it is.
Chancery is a special place. It has made Delaware famous for corporate law, but the court is more than that. It has judges but no juries, and the chancellor and the four vice chancellors make their decisions based on equity, or fairness, as distinct from the letter of the law.
It is the court where Louis Redding, the civil rights lawyer, went to argue against school segregation and Collins Seitz, the chancellor, concluded schools here were separate and unequal in the case that prefigured the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in 1954 in Brown v. Board.
It is one thing for someone from Delaware to know about Chancery. It is another thing entirely for someone who is not from here. Montgomery-Reeves comes from Mississippi.
She told the state senators at her confirmation hearing Wednesday in Legislative Hall in Dover she grew intrigued about Chancery during law school at the University of Georgia, where she received her degree in 2006, and then she got to see it for herself when she became a law clerk for Bill Chandler when he was the chancellor.
"I absolutely loved it," Montgomery-Reeves said.
Afterwards, she was hired by Weil Gotshal & Manges, a New York firm where Norman Veasey worked after retiring as Delaware's chief justice, but she came back to the state four years ago when Chandler recruited her after he left the bench to join him in private practice at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.
"If you all confirm me," Montgomery-Reeves said before the roll call, "I would make it my role and my duty to uphold and continue the tradition and history of this great court."
Montgomery-Reeves' confirmation leaves the Delaware Supreme Court as the state's only bench never to have an African-American, man or woman, appointed to it.
The five-member state Supreme Court has also had only two women sit as justices, their time briefly overlapping with Carolyn Berger going as Karen Valihura was coming last year. Chancery will be getting its second woman as vice chancellor with Montgomery-Reeves, following Berger, who spent 10 years there before being elevated to justice in 1994.
There was almost a collective sense the time has come for the state court system, especially at its highest reaches, to have more women and minorities as judges.
It was made plain when nobody who was not a woman even applied for the Chancery opening and when Montgomery-Reeves' confirmation hearing was attended by both Chandler and Andy Bouchard, past and present chancellors, in a show of affirmation.
There has been frustration along the way, but it is not easy to refashion the judiciary, where the terms are long, not to mention appointments are often followed by reappointments. Now with Montgomery-Reeves, the frustration could give way to rejoicing.
"She's broken the glass ceiling. To be a minority and a woman, it lets every little girl dream she can be anything she wants," said Margaret Rose Henry, as only she could know, as the only African-American woman ever elected to the state Senate, where she is the Democratic majority whip.
Nor was Montgomery-Reeves confirmed alone. As part of a special session to consider a number of gubernatorial nominations, the state Senate also approved two other African-American women for judicial posts, namely, Arlene Coppadge for a reappointment as a Family Court judge and Danielle Blount for an appointment as a Family Court commissioner, which is a lesser court officer.
It would have been understandable if Markell, who has absorbed some criticism over the pace of diversifying the courts, had said I told you so, but did not. Instead, he smiled and remarked in a very brief interview, "I'm pleased we have so many wonderful candidates."
Under the historic circumstances, maybe it was not so strange that the imposing portrait in profile of Charles Terry, the late chief justice and Democratic governor who left the National Guard on the streets way too long after the Wilmington riots in 1968, was missing, gone to be restored after the fire earlier this month in Legislative Hall.
The judicial gods act in mysterious ways.