Posted: May 5, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

As a member of the Delaware Supreme Court, the Court of Chancery and the Superior Court, Myron T. Steele has considered issues of life-or-death and corporate cases worth millions and millions of dollars.

Nevertheless, all that seemed to matter to his nomination for chief justice was a stray telephone conversation one afternoon in March with a Dover lawyer.

After about an hour of intense questioning Wednesday in a confirmation hearing, the state Senate came to the same conclusion as retiring Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey and a past bar association president who conducted an independent investigation.

The Senate chalked up the phone call to a cascade of excruciating coincidences in which everything that could have gone wrong, did. The chamber decided that Murphy's Law was not Myron's law, and so they granted Steele a promotion from justice to chief justice, the pinnacle of the Delaware judiciary.

Steele was confirmed for a 12-year term by a vote of 20-1 with all but state Sen. F. Gary Simpson, a Milford Republican, persuaded to support him.

As the roll call was announced, the next chief justice received a standing ovation and was swarmed by senators wanting to shake his hand and congratulate him.

It is not every day that the senators get to make a new chief justice. Here in Delaware, the post has special significance, because its holder not only presides over the five-member Supreme Court but serves as the leader of a judicial system recognized internationally for its pre-eminence in corporate law, primarily because of the Court of Chancery.

Steele himself looked more drained than jubilant after the vote, and moments later, he said it was the way he felt. "Relieved of significant anxiety," he said.

Steele was uncertain when he would assume his new post. He said he had to consult with the other Supreme Court justices on the timing, because they still were clearing up cases in which Veasey was involved. He has 30 days from his confirmation until he has to be sworn in.

In addition, Steele said he would not settle on whether to have a public investiture or a quieter ceremony, which would be his preference, until he discussed it with Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the fellow Kent County Democrat who appointed him.

Steele will be the seventh chief justice since the creation of the modern Supreme Court in 1951. Before then, the state's ranking judge was the chancellor, the head of the Court of Chancery.

Under the old structure, Delaware did not have a separate high court, relying instead on what was called a system of "leftover judges." If there was an appeal from a lower court, it was heard by a bench cobbled together from judges who had not sat on the case. It saved money, not having a permanent Supreme Court, but it also opened the courts to suspicions of cronyism, and eventually it had to go.

Steele, 58, of Dover, is the second chief justice from Kent County, joining Charles L. Terry Jr., who held the top spot from 1963 to 1964, when he resigned to accept the Democratic nomination for governor and was elected to a single term.

Steele's confirmation still leaves an opening on the Supreme Court because of Veasey's retirement, so Minner will have to crank up the nomination process again. Because the state constitution requires the court to be balanced politically, Minner will have to find a new Republican justice to replace Veasey and maintain the current lineup of three Democrats and two Republicans.

Steele's elevation was more arduous than anyone anticipated. Virtually since Minner became governor in 2001, he was regarded as her choice for chief justice when Veasey retired, and he seemed on track until he became involved in an explosive case involving the removal of rent caps for hundreds of Sussex County mobile home tenants.

Steele was part of a three-justice panel that heard oral arguments on the case March 16 and immediately afterwards decided to affirm the decision of a Superior Court judge against the tenants. Steele was assigned to issue the order.

What happened next became a cause for uproar and investigation. As Steele himself recounted in his confirmation hearing, he told his secretary to fax the order to the lawyers on both sides. He thought the faxes had gone out when he spoke later that day with John W. Paradee, the Dover lawyer who represented the mobile-home park corporation that won the case.

Steele and Paradee discussed an annual contribution they make to the University of Virginia, which both of them attended. Steele also mentioned the outcome of the case, not realizing the faxes were being held until the order was filed officially the next day.

The mobile home tenants were outraged to learn that the other side found out about the decision early through a private conversation and suspected the fix was in. They complained to their legislators and forced an ethics investigation into Steele's conduct. He was cleared last month in a report issued by Charles S. Crompton Jr., a past president of the Delaware State Bar Association.

What made Steele's position particularly perilous was the presence of other qualified candidates on the Supreme Court to be chief justice. Justice Randy J. Holland, a Sussex County Republican, had a veritable cheering section among the bench and bar, and Justice Carolyn Berger, a New Castle County Democrat, evoked sentiment as potentially the first woman to lead the court system.

Instead, Minner waited out the controversy and stuck with Steele.

Almost all of Steele's confirmation hearing was devoted to the incident. The closest questioning came from state Sen. Karen E. Peterson, a Stanton Democrat, who probed for signs of a whitewash and for inconsistencies in Steele's explanation.

"It's an embarrassing miscommunication that is entirely my fault," Steele told the senators. "I understand the angst and anxiety that my mistake has caused. I regret it, and it will never happen again."

The senators were satisfied, and Delaware had itself a new chief justice.