Posted: March 19, 2015
LONG TIME PASSING
By Celia Cohen
There were a lot of ghosts in Legislative Hall on this late winter afternoon.
They sifted into the state Senate chamber, which they themselves had peopled a half-century and more ago, because history was bending back over itself and their present-day kinfolk were doing what they had once done.
The ghosts were there because the Senate on Wednesday was taking up a series of judicial nominations, most notably the appointment of C.J. Seitz to the Delaware Supreme Court.
Not everyone could sense the spectral eyes witnessing their own legacy, but it was keen to the ones who could.
It was the ghosts from the civil rights era coming back, a time when the stone wall of segregation was crumbling to sit-ins and social justice, and they could hardly have imagined then what was there to see now.
Seitz was found to be talking amiably with Nancy Cook during a break in the Senate's proceedings. It was remarkable, because of another Seitz and another Cook who had been in the chamber before.
Seitz's full name is Collins J. Seitz Jr., and his namesake father, who died in 1998, went into the history books as the first judge anywhere in the country to suggest that segregation ought to be unconstitutional. His ruling in a case here in Delaware was the framework for the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board outlawing school segregation in 1954.
Cook, a Democratic state senator from 1974 to 2010, was married to Allen Cook, known in his day as "Cookie," who was also a Democratic state senator from 1956 until he died in office in 1974. Nancy Cook won his seat in a special election.
Cookie was a conservative Democrat, part of the last stand resisting the changes that Collins Seitz was so central to bringing on. As long as he could, Cookie held off the passage of a public accommodations bill, banning segregation in places like restaurants and hotels.
Cookie was known for his geniality, but he knew where he stood, and it led to a famous confrontation in 1963 over the bill he was stalling.
A local civil rights leader warned him, "You're sitting on top of a powder keg, Senator."
Cook answered, "Let 'er go."
It was a long time ago. The clashing ways of Seitz-and-Cook-past have yielded to the congenial days of Seitz-and-Cook-present, but not without a lot of turmoil in between.
In fact, Collins Seitz was nearly a casualty himself. He almost lost a judgeship.
Collins Seitz was nominated in 1951 for chancellor on the Court of Chancery, where he was already serving as a vice chancellor. The Senate wanted no parts of him.
Cookie was not involved -- he was in the legislature but as a state representative -- although another ghost was. This one also has a familiar ring to it, because it was Harris McDowell Jr., the namesake father of Harris McDowell III, a Democratic state senator today.
McDowell Jr., who died in 1988, is best remembered as a Democratic congressman, but he was not that far along in politics when Seitz was nominated. At the time, McDowell was the secretary of state for Bert Carvel, the Democratic governor.
The day Seitz was up for confirmation remains one of the most raucous in legislative history. Senators were sneaking out of Dover to avoid the vote, and Lex Bayard, the Democratic lieutenant governor who presided over the Senate, sent out the state police to bring them back.
McDowell Jr. joined with Carvel and Bayard to twist arms and make deals. They finally wore down the senators and got Seitz confirmed on June 16, 1951, at about 1:30 in the morning.
Bill Frank, a newspaper columnist looking back 15 years later, wrote, "Bayard told me the other day that perhaps the downstate senators had been shamed into confirming the appointment. . . . He had warned the recalcitrant senators that if they refused to confirm Seitz as chancellor solely because of his views on racial rights, it would be on their conscience as long as they lived."
No appeals to conscience were needed to confirm C.J. Seitz for justice.
As a respected corporate attorney with those deep Delaware roots, Seitz glided to confirmation with a unanimous vote of 21-0 and a quip from Bryan Townsend, a Democratic state senator who also practices law -- "My understanding is there are a lot of lawyers breathing a sigh of relief because they won't have to face you anymore."
It was quite the day for native Delawareans. Seitz was not the only judicial nominee coming before the Senate with ghosts and connections.
Jeff Clark, who was up for a Superior Court judgeship, is from a Kent County farming family full of past legislators, including one who was a delegate to the state constitutional convention of 1897. Nor did it hurt that Clark himself spent 16 years as a Senate attorney until 2012. He was unanimously confirmed.
McDowell, the current state senator, told Clark, "The soil gets in your blood, and you're a Delawarean through and through."
The Senate was not quite done. There was one last reminder of the way the past has given way to the present, as the senators approved the reappointment of Calvin Scott Jr., one of the African-American judges on the Superior Court.
It was like history nodding to justice, and the ghosts were free at last.