Posted: Nov. 6, 2015
AN IMPROBABLE ODYSSEY FROM OUT-OF-STATE TO INNER SANCTUM
By Celia Cohen
The breakthrough was even harder than it looked for Tamika Montgomery-Reeves to get onto the Court of Chancery, the inner sanctum of the Delaware judicial system.
Montgomery-Reeves is not from here.
It is one thing to be the first African-American on the court. It is another thing to be only the second woman, coming along after a 21-year gap. But not to be a native daughter?
Delaware is a very small state, where everyone likes to think they know everyone else, and there is nothing more dismissive than saying, I don't know her.
Montgomery-Reeves solved all of that to become the one to know.
It is what happens when someone assumes one of the five judgeships on Chancery, because there is nothing more essential than Chancery in making Delaware the undisputed capital of corporate law.
The courting, so to speak, of Montgomery-Reeves as a new vice chancellor begins once she takes her oath for a 12-year term in a private ceremony on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving, with a public investiture to follow on Dec. 11.
There is almost a sense of destiny in the way Montgomery-Reeves got here.
The idea of going to law school was instilled in Montgomery-Reeves as a little girl growing up in Mississippi by her grandmother, who worked in a factory.
"Probably my grandmother was the greatest influence in that. She talked to me a lot about how important the law was and how important it was to know your rights and to help people who weren't as fortunate," Montgomery-Reeves said.
Montgomery-Reeves figured she might become a defense attorney, as she went to college at the University of Mississippi and on to law school at the University of Georgia, class of 2006, but her plans changed when she took a corporate law course.
She loved corporate law. It was like giving a basketball to Elena Della Donne. It was meant to be.
If Montgomery-Reeves was to be a corporate law practitioner, she had to get to the state where Chancery was.
As it turned out, she had a Delaware connection to get her here, even if she did not know it, and it was the best one she could have had.
One of her law professors was Charles O'Kelley. In the early 1980s he taught at the University of Alabama, and so did Bill Chandler, a Sussex Countian who would return home shortly and rise to lead Chancery as the chancellor from 1997 to 2011.
O'Kelley suggested Montgomery-Reeves might be a good choice for a law clerk for Chandler.
"That's the start of the seven-degrees-of-separation story for Tamika being here. I instantly thought, hmmm, Chuck doesn't just send me anybody, he sends me the best of the best," Chandler said.
One of the ways Montgomery-Reeves impressed Chandler with her considerable thoughtfulness had nothing to do with the court docket.
Chandler worked from the Chancery courthouse on The Circle in Georgetown, the Sussex County seat, so his clerks typically rented a place near the beach. Not Montgomery-Reeves. She lodged in Bridgeville, known for apple-scrapple, not social life.
"I got a better deal," Montgomery-Reeves said.
After the clerkship it was on to a New York firm for a corporate practice, but with an understanding Montgomery-Reeves would not mind working with Chandler again. The opportunity came when Chandler left the bench to be the founding partner of a Delaware office for Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, an international firm headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif., and she returned to join him.
Delaware became home. Montgomery-Reeves lives in Surrey Park in Brandywine Hundred with her husband, an attorney who commutes regularly to Georgia, and their five-month-old son.
Law clerks do have a way of winding up on the court themselves. When Chancery needed a new vice chancellor to replace Don Parsons, who stepped down last month, Montgomery-Reeves applied and went on to make history when she was nominated by Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, and confirmed unanimously by the state Senate.
It was a moment not lost on anyone. "Who knew little girls dreamed to grow up to be Chancery Court judges?" quipped Greg Lavelle, the Senate's Republican minority whip.
Amid all the change Montgomery-Reeves represents, she is also the first Millennial, a 34-year-old born in 1981, to sit on Chancery, although it is only a matter of course for a court that has long been famous for youthful vice chancellors.
"A Millennial not from here, geographical diversity, a woman and a person of color, it brings a different perspective," Montgomery-Reeves said.
The most famous of the youthful vice chancellors was of course Collins Seitz, who was 31 when he was appointed to the court in 1946.
As vice chancellor on the court where the rulings are grounded in fairness, Seitz ordered the integration of the University of Delaware, and as chancellor, he did the same for public schools in a decision that underlay the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 landmark opinion of Brown v. Board.
Montgomery-Reeves may not have been from here, but because of what Collins Seitz did, she is every bit a daughter of the Chancery Court.