Posted: May 7, 2009
CHANCERY'S SLOW CHANGE
By Celia Cohen
Two openings on the Court of Chancery would be too much to take.
It could have happened to the court, the country's first resort in business law. Chancery is one of the prime reasons for Delaware's national reputation, right up there with Caesar Rodney's Ride and its famous status as the First State.
(It is too early to tell whether Joe Biden will displace any of those distinguished Delaware icons at the top or simply hang around in the rankings with chickens, no sales tax and the Roth IRA.)
There was decided fidgeting in the corporate bar as the prospect loomed that two of Chancery's five judges were nearing the end of their 12-year terms -- Chancellor Bill Chandler at the end of June and Vice Chancellor Steve Lamb at the end of July.
"This is a court that's valued for its consistency and stability. You expect turnover every so often, but two in a year would be pretty drastic," said Charles Elson, a professor of corporate governance at the University of Delaware.
The nervousness mounted when Lamb declared he would be leaving. It calmed somewhat on Monday with the notice that Chandler wanted to stay.
One out of two is not too bad. "The court is a pretty resilient institution, but gradual change is more reassuring than sudden," said Larry Hamermesh, a professor of corporate law at Widener University law school.
Chandler still has to have Gov. Jack Markell reappoint him, subject to Senate confirmation, but it is regarded as a formality that he will be staying a while longer in his Sussex County chambers.
Not only is Chandler respected, but the other two branches of government hardly have the stomach for disrupting Chancery amid a dire budget crunch. The court is part of Delaware's lucrative corporate-and-banking franchise, accounting for about a third of all state revenue, and meddling with it would be akin to inciting the taxpayers to rush on Legislative Hall like the second storming of the Bastille.
Besides, Markell and Chandler came to appreciate one another as colleagues on the Board of Pardons for 10 years, while Markell was the state treasurer. The board --whose five members are the lieutenant governor, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and chancellor -- makes recommendations for clemency to the governor.
Markell called Chandler "frankly one of my heroes."
Chandler's reappointment appears to be so routine, it ought to be ready for the Senate's consideration before the 2009 legislative session ends on June 30.
A replacement for Lamb will take longer. A cattle call of judges and lawyers is likely to apply, and Markell does not plan to send a name to the Senate until after Lamb's term expires on July 28, according to Joe Rogalsky, the governor's communications director.
"We are coordinating with the Senate and expect they will likely come back [for a special session] to consider the nomination during Labor Day week," Rogalsky said.
Once there is a transition to a new vice chancellor, no one should be surprised if Chandler does not stay for a full 12-year term.
The chancellorship is notorious for grinding up its occupants -- the first vice chancellor was added after a chancellor died in office in 1938 -- and Chandler will be eligible for a full judicial pension in October, when he completes 24 years as a judge. He joined the Superior Court in 1985 and then became a vice chancellor in 1989 and chancellor in 1997.
Maybe Chandler dropped a little clue about an early exit into his wording, when he acknowledged he would apply for a new term. "I'm excited about the opportunity to serve a little longer on the court I've come to love so much," he said.
For now, Chandler's dedication has provided some relief for a court system that could do without any extra turmoil.
There is enough already because of the state's budget shrinkage and a Supreme Court chief justice who could stand to make more use of his computer's "delete" key.