Posted: June 24, 2004
RIDGELY HAS A STUTTER STEP ON THE WAY TO SUPREME COURT
By Celia Cohen
Henry duPont Ridgely's rise from Superior Court president judge to Supreme Court justice is at least temporarily on hold, delayed by an apparent self-inflicted blunder.
Ridgely was tapped last Wednesday by Gov. Ruth Ann Minner for an opening on Delaware's highest court. About an hour after her morning telephone call, he notified Superior Court judges and staff by a mass e-mail, and word of his nomination spread from there -- before the governor's office informed the state senators who are responsible for judges' confirmations.
Senators jealously regard the legislature as co-equal to the executive and legislative branches, and they do not like to be the last to know. They do not like to hear of appointments from court personnel, which is what happened to some of them.
This is unlikely to be news to Ridgely, who worked as a Senate attorney before he was appointed to the bench in 1984.
"That's not a good situation," said Sen. Thurman G. Adams Jr., the Democratic president pro tem from Bridgeville. "A lot of senators are upset about it, and I understand it. He should have waited."
Ridgely's nomination was expected to be approved in routine fashion before the General Assembly ends on June 30, but Adams has not scheduled a confirmation hearing and may not do it, leaving Ridgely dangling in hopes of a special session later on.
"I haven't got it on the agenda," Adams said. "I have enough problems as it is. This is an unnecessary problem."
Ridgely did not return a request Thursday for comment.
Ridgely, 55, of Camden, is serving his second 12-year term as the ranking judge on the Superior Court, the state's largest with 19 judges who hear both civil and criminal cases. He would fill a vacancy that was created when E. Norman Veasey retired as chief justice and Myron T. Steele moved up from justice. Ridgely would serve a 12-year term on the five-member court.
Ridgely emerged early on as the likeliest choice for the Supreme Court, particularly because of the growing status of the Superior Court.
Long in the shadow of the Court of Chancery and its international reputation in corporate law, the Superior Court has been named the top court of its kind in the country for three consecutive years by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It was an accolade that only could help in a state that has been capitalizing on its pro-business leanings since the last years of the 19th Century.
Minner went out of her way to praise Ridgely, a fellow Kent Countian, during Steele's investiture a month ago, so it was no surprise when she chose Ridgely from a list of candidates recommended by her Judicial Nominating Commission, which screens applicants for judgeships.
The confidential list included Ridgely as well as Vice Chancellor Stephen P. Lamb and Superior Court Judges Susan C. Del Pesco and Jerome O. Herlihy, the Delaware Grapevine has learned.
All of the candidates are Republicans. Although Minner is a Democrat, the state constitution requires political balance on the Supreme Court, which currently has three Democrats, one Republican and one Republican vacancy.
Minner still would like Ridgely's nomination to be considered before the legislature goes home, despite the misstep, according to Gregory B. Patterson, the governor's communications director.
When Minner settles on an appointment, she typically telephones her choice and the other candidates with the expectation the nominee will tell family and perhaps a secretary but otherwise allow time for the senators to be notified before her decision becomes public, Patterson said.
"In this case the circle was a little wider than it usually is," Patterson said. "As a former member of the Senate herself, the governor has always tried to give senators on both sides of the aisle a heads-up. Circumstances prevented that from happening this time, but she certainly hopes that the senators will consider Judge Ridgely's nomination before the end of session."
Sen. John C. Still III, the Republican minority leader from Dover, said he understood Adam's position on the appointment -- "he's a traditionalist and I can appreciate it" -- but was optimistic there still would be a roll call on Ridgely next week. "I think he's a great appointment," Still said.
Ridgely's nomination is the second in a row to run into difficulty over internal court communication. Steele's confirmation was imperiled when he assumed a fax releasing a Supreme Court decision was sent before he spoke about it to a lawyer involved in the case. Judges are not supposed to speak to one side without the other to prevent anyone from gaining an advantage.
Now Ridgely's e-mail has led to a fuss, just three months after Steele's errant fax. "I wish some folks would learn by these mistakes," Adams said.