Posted: Dec. 21, 2015


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

What Bill Chandler said is not what people heard.

Chandler was speaking at the investiture for Tamika Montgomery-Reeves, the newest vice chancellor on the Court of Chancery, and there was good reason for it. He was probably more responsible for the proceedings than anyone else.

Chandler used to be the chancellor himself, sitting on Delaware's most famous court from 1989 until he departed for private practice in 2011, and he was the one who drew Montgomery-Reeves here from her Mississippi upbringing to be his law clerk on the court and eventually his law partner, until she departed for her judicial appointment.

Her investiture was a see-and-be-seen event in legal circles on Dec. 11, with a crowd that overflowed the courtroom in the New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington, and no wonder.

Chancery is the jewel of the judiciary, renowned far beyond state borders for its docket of corporate law and its decision-making based on fairness, as distinguished from the letter of the law, and there is always a flutter accompanying the changing of its five-member bench.

If ever there was a place where remarks would reverberate, the investiture of Montgomery-Reeves would be it, particularly when they are delivered by someone with the stature of Chandler giving the judicial equivalent of a keynote address.

It was prime theater. Chandler stood in front of the bench as he spoke from a lectern positioned toward the crowd and canted away from the full bank of Chancery judges. He turned very deliberately to address Montgomery-Reeves, the protege made good, as shown in a video provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts.

It looked every bit like Chandler was at pains to ensure people would not get the message he was speaking to anybody else. What happened was people absolutely got the message he was speaking to somebody else.

His words sounded so much like fatherly advice that could have come from Polonius in the well-known soliloquy from Hamlet -- "this above all, to thine own self be true" -- and they were imparted with so much of the courtliness that seems to flow naturally from Sussex Countians like Chandler that really, it would probably be rude to think he meant anything else by it.

Chandler had just finished explaining Montgomery-Reeves "has not one ounce of intellectual hubris" at the moment he turned to her and said just the sort of thing that should be said to someone who has abounding intellectual hubris:

"Your Honor, lawyers and litigants will now come before you seeking to be heard. . . .

"Whether they ultimately win or lose, all share a very simple wish -- to have their case heard and decided promptly, and not to be yelled at, ridiculed, mocked or embarrassed.

"Treat people the way you want to be treated. Listen to their arguments and positions with an open mind. Address them with respect and seriousness. Do not make jokes at their expense or disparage them, their views or arguments.

"If you just give them the answer without the adjectives and adverbs, you will find that it is all repaid in equal measure of respect, kindness and honor."

Minds leaped. Minds leaped to the chief justice, to Leo Strine Jr., as a number of those minds later acknowledged, but only in strictest confidence.

It was as though they needed to be hidden in some sort of hush-hush lawyer protection program, out of fear of otherwise being yelled at, ridiculed, mocked or embarrassed or not have their arguments considered with an open mind.

It was actually an easy leap for a mind to make to Strine, whose long and lofty history of grilling and skewering could put a shish kebob chef to shame.

All anybody has to know is that Strine thought enough of himself to refer to his four colleagues shortly after he joined the Supreme Court as "patient sherpas to me" and once belittled a legal argument as "at best fit for a discussion by a Red Bull-fueled group of nerdy second-year law school corporate law junkies who found themselves dateless (big surprise) on yet another Saturday night."

So much for an answer without the adjectives and adverbs.

It has been going on for a long time. Only someone like Chandler, someone who is all Sussex County charm and sat as the chancellor when Strine first put on a robe in 1998 as a vice chancellor, could get away with saying what he said. If he said it. What a public rebuke. If it was one.

People heard what they wanted to hear, and they were delighted to have heard it, even if they did regret that Strine, who did not attend the investiture, was not there to hear it himself.

As Alice said in Wonderland, the question is whether anyone can make words mean so many different things.

Tom Sawyer insisted he wanted to whitewash Aunt Polly's fence all by himself. Brer Rabbit pleaded not to be thrown into the briar patch. Bill Chandler meant his remarks for the new vice chancellor.

Honest, he did.