Posted: Feb. 9, 2016


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

There are two basics every governor of Delaware had better attend to -- or else go down in infamy. Balance the budget. Not mess up the Court of Chancery.

The budget is an annual challenge that goes with the office, but nobody else had to grapple with Chancery the way Jack Markell, the Democratic governor now in his eighth and final year, did.

Mess up Chancery, and there goes the state's corner on corporate law and all of the prestige and revenue that go with it. Lawyers would be circling.

Markell is the only governor to have to people the entire court, by coming up with someone new for chancellor and all four vice chancellors, since Chancery was expanded to five members in 1989.

He finished the sweep on Monday when he announced his choice of Joe Slights, an ex-judge who went back to private practice in 2012 after 12 years on the Superior Court, as the replacement for John Noble, a vice chancellor retiring at the end of the month.

The timing of it left a suspicious whiff in the air that Markell wanted to be quick to the draw.

Not only is Noble still sitting, but the state Senate is out until the General Assembly returns in March from a break, so Slights' nomination cannot even be considered for confirmation before then.

Still, if Markell had not moved so swiftly, things might have gotten awkward, and maybe it would not have messed up Chancery, but why find out? That would not exactly have been governorly.

What was taking on a life of its own out there was the matter of Slights' county of origin.

The situation was this. In the 27 years since Chancery got its fifth judge, there has been a custom of geographical balance with three seats for New Castle County, one seat for Kent County and one seat for Sussex County.

Noble was giving up the Kent County seat. Kent County wanted to keep it, but the only candidates forwarded to Markell by his Judicial Nominating Commission were Joel Friedlander and Slights.

Friedlander, a prominent corporate law practitioner, was definitely from New Castle County. Slights came from generations of Kent Countians and grew up in Kent County but located to New Castle County for his law practice and judgeship, so was he Kent County enough or not?

While Markell pondered his selection, Kent County was making noises. Like it might be on the receiving end of slights.

John Sigler, a lawyer who used to be the Republican state chair, wrote to Reneta Green-Streett, the president of the Kent County Bar Association, to note that neither of the candidates were "lawyers practicing in Kent County, residing in Kent County or members of the Kent County Bar" and to wonder about taking a stand.

"I bring this matter to your attention for the purpose of posing a question for you. 'Does the Kent County Bar Association intend to take a position on this issue?'" Sigler wrote.

"Will the Kent County Bar Association protect and defend the history and tradition of the bar and our judiciary by 'insisting' that the governor either ask for a third name to be sent to him from Kent County or that the posting be re-opened for other Kent County lawyers and judges to apply?"

This was last Thursday. Green-Streett asked for feedback from other Kent County lawyers and decided to form a committee to consider Kent County's options. The committee was set to meet Monday, but just before it did, Markell announced he wanted Slights, and that was that.

As Green-Streett told the Kent County Bar Association on Tuesday by e-mail, "It was announced yesterday that Judge Slights had been chosen for the seat. The committee meeting was canceled. As there was no consensus from our membership, and a selection had already been made, no position or action was taken by the KCBA [Kent County Bar Association.]"

As much as Markell's announcement looked like a masterpiece of good timing, he disavowed it.

"There's chatter about everything I do. We had two extraordinarily qualified candidates. I interviewed both of them last week. My experience is if I don't have to leave people hanging, I'd rather not," Markell said Tuesday in a short interview.

Kent County could still think about stirring up stuff in the state Senate, where a confirmation hearing for Slights is scheduled for March 16, but the odds are not good anything could come of it, especially not for someone who once was confirmed by 21-0 for a previous judgeship.

"I suppose it might be he won't be unanimous, but he'll be confirmed. I think he'll be a wonderful vice chancellor. He certainly has the background and experience," said Patti Blevins, the Democratic president pro tem.

Slights has wanted to get on Chancery for a long time. He came off the Superior Court, which has a far-ranging docket of criminal and civil cases, to recommit himself to a corporate law practice.

Who knew what Slights really needed to do was join the Kent County bar?