Posted: April 27, 2011
IF THURMAN WAS AROUND . . .
By Celia Cohen
If there are two places in Delaware where outside interference hardly stands a chance, it would be the state Senate and Sussex County.
Thurman Adams in his day was the incarnation of both.
As the Democratic president pro tem from Bridgeville, he was a force, and it was never a good idea to try to do something in the Senate or Sussex County without considering what Adams would think. Especially on judgeships.
"He took care of judges, and Sussex County judges in particular," said Bill Lee, who was one of those Sussex judges, sitting on the Superior Court until he left to run for governor as a Republican.
Sussex County could stand to have Adams around now, but it was deprived of his formidable presence in 2009 when he died at the age of 80, a Sussex legislator to the end.
As if the absence of Adams was not enough, the state's southernmost county is about to lose a judicial juggernaut when Bill Chandler, the nationally prominent chancellor from Dagsboro, retires in June. It might not be Sussex pride alone that dims, but influence and opportunity, too.
Without Adams, there is really no one who could insist that the opening on the Court of Chancery, the state's celebrated bench for business law, has to go to another Sussex Countian.
By custom, all three counties get a share of the five judgeships on Chancery, but not by law. The state constitution requires the courts to be balanced politically, but not geographically. The ramifications are not going unnoticed in Sussex County.
"I think you have to look at the long tradition of each county being represented on the Court of Chancery. There's no compelling reason not to continue that tradition," said Bruce Rogers, a Sussex County lawyer who had a hand in judicial nominations as the counsel to Mike Castle, the Republican governor from 1985 to 1993.
The problem is that chancellors are not found every day in places like Dagsboro, the town that 805 people call home, and the custom of spreading the judgeships among the counties does not seem as imperative as preserving Chancery's eminence.
The court is one of the "4 Cs," the four cornerstones of the state's economy, namely chemicals, chickens, Chancery and charge cards, so governors meddle with Chancery at their peril.
It certainly does not seem that Jack Markell, the Democratic governor from New Castle County, regards geography as destiny.
Brian Selander, the governor's spokesman, turned aside an inquiry about residency by saying, "The governor looks forward to seeing the recommendations by the Judicial Nominating Commission."
Geographic diversity, demographic diversity, whatever, what this court needs is the best it can get. What would Thurman Adams have said to that?
"He would say the best person is in Sussex County," quipped Gary Simpson, the Senate's Republican minority leader from Milford.
Simpson is the only Sussex Countian on the Senate Executive Committee, which has jurisdiction over judicial nominations, but his own thoughts mirror the governor's. "I would certainly think it's a benefit [to be from Sussex County], but I want the most qualified," he said.
Chancery could wind up with a new chancellor and a new vice chancellor, if a current vice chancellor is promoted, as is very likely.
Leo Strine Jr., a Democratic vice chancellor, is regarded as the front-runner for chancellor. If so, the new vice chancellor would have to be a Republican, like Chandler, to preserve the court's political balance, currently at three Democrats and two Republicans.
The field for vice chancellor is far from set, but there is an early line. It includes two candidates who made the short list in 2009 when Markell chose Travis Laster for vice chancellor. They are Mary Johnston, a Superior Court judge, and Richard Forsten, a partner at Saul Ewing in Wilmington and counsel to the Delaware Republican Party.
Other names being mentioned are Sam Glasscock III, who is already part of the court as a master, or junior judicial officer, and Kevin Brady, a partner at Connolly Bove Lodge & Hutz in Wilmington.
Glasscock is from Sussex. Brady cleverly registered to vote in Sussex County from his beach house in Lewes in 2009, just about the time Chandler became eligible for a full judicial pension.
It is doubtful Brady's registration would have mollified Thurman Adams, but never mind now.