Posted: April 18, 2008


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Judge Jane Richards Roth has become a Democrat. Yes, she has, even though the odds of it happening were once slightly less than having Greta Garbo ever say, "You know, I really could use some company."

This is 2008. There are Obamacans, the Delaware Republicans would be better off giving their nomination for governor away as a Cracker Jack prize than settling for what they have now, and so anything goes, even Roth's trusty Republican registration.

Roth was one of the thousands of voters who switched parties by March 31, the deadline for changing before the primary election on Sept. 9. Delaware has a "closed" primary -- with only Democrats allowed to vote in Democratic contests, Republicans in Republican contests and independents not allowed to vote at all.

"There is a certain person that I very much want to vote for in a primary," Roth said Friday.

Jane Roth, of all people! It is startling because she was married to Bill Roth, the late Republican senator who was elected to five terms.

It is astounding because she herself became a judge on the say-so of Republican presidents. Ronald Reagan named her to the U.S. District Court, and the first George Bush put her on the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, where she sits now as a senior judge with a lessened caseload.

It is positively mind-bending because she is a Richards, a family of early Delawareans who settled in Sussex County in 1675 and became some of the original Republicans in the mid-19th Century. They were so Republican, they were for Abraham Lincoln even though they were slaveholders.

Roth's grandfather was Robert Richards Sr., a Republican attorney general about a century ago and the founder of Richards Layton & Finger, a legal practice so closely identified with the Republican party that its initials RLF are said wittily to stand for "Republican Law Firm."

Roth's father was Robert Richards Jr., also a lawyer, who schemed with Republican Gov. Walter Bacon after World War II to stop a new bridge across the Delaware River from being named after President Franklin Roosevelt -- because he was a Democrat. Instead, it became the Delaware Memorial Bridge for the war dead.

If Roth's ancestors are not haunting her house, then there really must be no such thing as ghosts.

As a judge, Roth must stay out of politics, so she cannot elaborate about why she changed her registration. Still, it is possible to make an educated guess.

Unlike most party switchers, Roth almost certainly did not do it so she could vote in the Democratic gubernatorial primary between Treasurer Jack Markell and Lt. Gov. John Carney.

Markell was a campaign aide for S.B. Woo, the former lieutenant governor who was Bill Roth's Democratic opponent in 1988. Carney was the finance secretary for Tom Carper, the Democratic governor who became a senator by ousting Roth in 2000.

Jane Roth most likely became a Democrat because of her regard for Chris Coons, the New Castle County executive facing a Democratic primary challenge from Tom Gordon, his predecessor.

Coons was a law clerk for Roth, an association well known for creating lifetime bonds. Roth went to Harvard Law School, Coons to Yale. It makes sense that a Harvard grad with the gumption to hire a Yalie would be willing to cross party lines for him, too.

Roth's party switching has no effect on her judicial status. Under the U.S. Constitution, federal judges may be removed only for treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

"Changing party affiliation would not rise to that level," quipped Timothy Jay Houseal, a lawyer for the Delaware Republican Party.

Re-registering is not like getting a tattoo. Once Primary Day passes, it is easy to make it go away. Voters can switch back.

"My great-grandfather was a drummer boy in the Union Army," said Roth, reaffirming her deep, deep roots in the party of Lincoln. "This is not a permanent change."