Posted: March 18, 2011
THE BEST JUDGE WHO NEVER RAN A COURT
By Celia Cohen
Talk about timing. This week Randy Holland gets a prestigious national award, and next week he goes before the state Senate for a confirmation vote that would keep him on the Delaware Supreme Court for a third term.
Not that Holland really needs the extra accolade. Norman Veasey, the former chief justice, says Holland is "the quintessential judge."
Holland already has made history. He was the youngest ever to join the modern Supreme Court, as a 39-year-old on Dec. 12, 1986, and now stands a Senate vote away from being the first justice to serve three terms, each 12 years long.
More importantly, Holland has written history. He is a noted scholar of state constitutions, all 50 of them, and the author and editor of an array of books on the Delaware bench and bar, appellate law and and even one on lawyers during the American Revolution.
Holland was recognized Wednesday evening for judicial excellence as the latest recipient of the Opperman Award, presented annually by the American Judicature Society. His competition? The 25,000 state judges around the country.
It was a laudatory ceremony, drawing about 300 judges and lawyers to the Chase Center on the Riverfront in Wilmington, but Holland saw it for what it was.
Opening arguments. The Senate has yet to speak, and Holland was either too polite or too canny to count his confirmation votes before they are cast.
It is a good thing, because the Senate is right up there in the standings for the Ego Capital of the Western World. (Not the East, though, where there is Moammar Gadhafi and his cult of self-worship. It is a rare figure who can motivate the United Nations to actually unite against him.)
"I hope when the Senate votes next Wednesday, I'll get to continue," Holland said.
The reality is, Holland understands the importance of counting votes. Veasey, who spoke at the award ceremony, made it plain in a story he told about his own arrival on the Supreme Court in 1992. Veasey came in as the chief of the five justices but also as a rookie judge, straight from a law firm, so he asked Holland for advice.
"Randy said, Norm, this tutorial is going to be very short. All you need to do is know how to count to three," Veasey said.
Holland holds one of the Republican seats on the state's highest court, which is constitutionally required to be politically balanced. He was nominated first by Mike Castle, a Republican governor, next by Tom Carper, a Democratic governor now in the U.S. Senate, and this time by Jack Markell, the Democratic governor.
Castle, who spoke at the award ceremony, praised Holland for "the difference a little boy from Milford, Delaware, can make."
This is not as surprising as it might seem. There is something about Milford, the little downstate city split between Kent and Sussex counties.
Milford has contributed not just Holland, but an outsized share of other notable Delawareans, among them: Ruth Ann Minner, the first woman to be the governor here; James Latchum, the late federal judge; Glenn Kenton, a secretary of state; Tom Draper, the owner of WBOC-TV; Littleton Mitchell, the late civil rights advocate; and various Burris family members such as John Burris, a Delaware State Chamber of Commerce president and Republican candidate for governor.
"Everybody asks me, what's in the water in Milford? I really don't have an answer," said Kenton, who was the secretary of state for Pete du Pont, the Republican governor from 1977 to 1985.
Kenton's best guess on the reason for Milford's disproportionate influence is the "Greatest Generation," which returned from World War II with a resolve to provide the next generation with the educational opportunities it never had.
Holland and Kenton, for example, both went off to Swarthmore College and then to law school, Holland at the University of Pennsylvania and Kenton at Georgetown.
For all of Holland's accomplishment, he has never run a court. He is probably a casualty of his own achievement. He got to the Supreme Court so early, he was prematurely blocked from cultivating the political ties that look like a prerequisite.
A good record is not necessarily all there is to it. Myron Steele, appointed chief justice by Minner, was a Kent County Democratic chair. James Vaughn Jr., named the Superior Court president judge by Minner, had a father who was a Democratic state senator. And so it goes.
Holland called the award ceremony somewhat overwhelming, but with typical judiciousness, he found a way to keep it in perspective. Not too long ago, he had one of those out-of-the-mouths-of-babes moments.
It happened when his four-year-old granddaughter was told her grandfather was a judge, and she said, "Do you mean like on American Idol?"
Better actually. Not an American idol, but a Delaware icon.