Posted: Feb. 13, 2015


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Sometimes the fate of a judicial opening can come across as downright Kennedy-esque.

Ask not who applied to sit on the court, ask who did not apply to get there.

The answer concerns the Delaware Supreme Court, which needs a new justice to replace Henry duPont Ridgely after his retirement last month.

Tom McGonigle did not apply. He used to be the chief of staff for Jack Markell during the Democratic governor's first term, and it goes without saying that any others looking at the opening did not really want to find themselves up against that kind of competition.

McGonigle, however, decided to stay where he is, as a partner in the Wilmington office of Drinker Biddle, a national firm that started in Philadelphia more than a century-and-a-half ago.

It has been quite the season for going absent, with or without leave. Brian Williams at NBC News, Jon Stewart at "The Daily Show," and now McGonigle. They all had their reasons.

"I gave it a lot of thought. I just concluded it was not the right time for me. I just returned to private practice. To be appointed to the Supreme Court is an incredible honor, and just to be mentioned in that mix is flattering," McGonigle said.

The timing is particularly acute, because the court has spent the last year in a rapid makeover.

The five-member bench has a new chief justice in Leo Strine Jr., two new justices in Karen Valihura and Jim Vaughn Jr., a single holdover justice only reappointed in 2011 in Randy Holland, and now one new justice on the way to replace Ridgely. 

With judicial terms running 12 years, it is possible there will not be another vacancy until Holland is up in 2023 -- 2023! -- and it also could be the last Supreme Court opening before McGonigle's old boss reaches the two-term limit for governors and exits in January 2017.

"It is what it is. You may never get another opportunity. I know that," McGonigle said.

Without McGonigle, the judicial appointments system went ahead and spun out other candidates.

The finalists recommended to the governor by his Judicial Nominating Commission, which screens the applicants, are said to be: Calvin Scott, a Superior Court judge; Collins J. "C.J." Seitz Jr., a Wilmington lawyer; and Joe Slights, a former Superior Court judge now in private practice.

The names are supposed to be confidential, but confidentiality is not a strong suit in a state as small as Delaware, although all three did their part. They were unreachable for comment.

Any of them would bring a noteworthy background to the state's highest court. Scott would be the first African-American justice. Seitz is the namesake son of Collins Seitz, regarded as Delaware's greatest judge of the 20th Century for his landmark decisions in civil rights cases. Slights was previously a finalist for justice when the appointment went to Vaughn in the fall.

In a twist, Markell will also be considering Scott for reappointment to the Superior Court, where his current term ends next Thursday.

Markell's choice will have to be confirmed by the state Senate, after the General Assembly returns to Dover on March 17 from its winter break.

The opening for a justice gives Markell  and the Senate's Democratic majority an opportunity to flip the Supreme Court back to the Democrats.

The state constitution requires the court to be politically balanced, and as of now, it is split evenly with Strine and Vaughn as the Democrats and Holland and Valihura as the Republicans. (Ridgely served as a Republican, as well.)

Seitz and Slights are Democrats. Scott is a Republican. Technically it could go either way.

Whatever way the court's opening goes, it will go without Tom McGonigle. Not since Puff the Magic Dragon has anything so enticing been left behind.