Posted: April 25, 2011


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Bill Chandler is resigning as chancellor to close out more than two decades of a remarkable run on the Court of Chancery, the state's most storied bench.

It is a move that is guaranteed to set off palpitations in legal circles and corporate offices here in Delaware and far beyond, because the chancellor is the keeper of the flame for the state's signature practice of business law.

This is the Big One. Somewhere there are aspiring applicants to this court hearing hosannahs in their heads, and everywhere the corporate bar, congenitally skittish about change, will be pining for someone who can ensure that all will be well.

Chandler's letter of resignation went to the governor's office on Monday. It gives notice that he will leave the court on June 17, timing that allows for a new chancellor to be nominated and confirmed before the General Assembly ends its session on June 30.

"Chancellor Chandler is known throughout Delaware and beyond for helping make the Court of Chancery one of the most responsive and best regarded courts in the country," said Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, in a statement.

"His corporate law decisions will be studied in law schools and corporate board rooms for decades to come, but here in Delaware, what we will remember about the chancellor is how he treated everyone, whether a high-priced lawyer in his courtroom or a stranger at the coffee shop, with that same Delaware courtesy and respect."

Chandler's departure is not unexpected. He became eligible for a full judicial pension with 24 years on the bench in October 2009, after a series of appointments as a Superior Court judge in 1985, vice chancellor in 1989 and chancellor in 1997.

"I want to give somebody else the chance," Chandler said. "I've really been as happy as anyone could be. Literally I still enjoy every minute of it."

The intrigue surrounding the appointment is whether there will be one opening or two.

Leo Strine Jr., a vice chancellor since 1998, is regarded as the front-runner to become the next chancellor, although it is not a good idea to take anything for granted when all three branches of government are involved, not to mention a self-interested bar. If Strine were to be elevated, then the court would need a new vice chancellor.

Chancery has five members, and the state constitution requires it to have a political balance, which is currently three Democrats and two Republicans. Chandler is a Republican, so he can be replaced either by another Republican or by a Democratic vice chancellor like Strine, whose seat would have to go to a Republican.

Chandler has done his part in a public life that stretched nearly unbroken for four decades and took him to a post that is right up there in impact with the governorship.

Chandler is a scholarly, soft-spoken son of Sussex County with the steel and sense of humor that turn a judge into a judicial presence.

He comes from a political family in Dagsboro -- his father was a Sussex County councilman and a state agriculture secretary -- and he was counsel to Pete du Pont, a Republican governor, followed by a two-year turn in private practice before going on the bench.

Chandler transformed the Court of Chancery. He professionalized its operation by delicately winning a prickly political fight to turn the register in chancery, the court's clerk, from an elected to an appointed office. With the strong backing of Thurman Adams, a state senator from Sussex County, he also had a new courthouse built on The Circle in Georgetown. Adams was a Democrat, but he thought the world of Chandler.

The chancellor immersed himself in the details of the courthouse construction, so much so that he courteously brought coffee to the work crew.

Of all the scores and scores of cases that Chandler heard, he is probably best remembered for the Disney trial that made Georgetown the center of the universe for corporate law and the entertainment industry, especially when Sidney Poitier, the noted actor, arrived in town.

"He's actually done the chamber of commerce a lot of good, as well as being a respected member of Delaware's most respected court," quipped Bill Lee, the retired judge who left the Superior Court bench in Sussex County to become a Republican candidate for governor.

"Much to the consternation of the Supreme Court, which sits at the top, the chancellor has for a long time been considered the guardian of the corporate golden egg. We've been blessed with great chancellors, and Bill Chandler fits that mold," Lee said.

Chandler is not going anywhere. Although there is considerable speculation that he will eventually join a major law firm, he is a trustee at the University of Delaware and remains committed to the welfare of the state.

"I'm not going to leave Delaware. I'm not going to leave my ancestral home in Dagsboro," he said.

"I bleed blue and gold."