Posted: June 10, 2011
By Celia Cohen
Delaware does not have two major parties, but three, as the political quip goes. Democrats, Republicans, and Sussex County.
Sussex is celebrating a big win this week. When the governor announced his choices for the Court of Chancery, the jewel of the state's judicial system with its renowned corporate law docket, Sussex was still looking at a judge to call its own.
That rash of thunderstorms that just tore through the East Coast? It might have been what happens when an entire county exhales at once.
Sussex has been fiercely proud of its judge on the five-member court. Particularly because it was the chancellor, the chief judge, even though the white-shoe corporate lawyers are clustered upstate where, it was assumed, they looked down on Sussex as lower, slower Delaware, a land of chickens and summer beaches.
So Sussex was concerned when Bill Chandler, the chancellor since 1997, decided he would depart June 17 for private practice, emptying not only his spot on the court but that gem of a courthouse opened in 2003 on The Circle in Georgetown, a testament to how much Sussex meant to Chancery and Chancery meant to Sussex.
It was worrisome when Jack Markell, the Democratic governor from New Castle County, got a list of candidates from his Judicial Nominating Commission, and two of the three names were blockbusters from the north.
There was Leo Strine Jr., the vice chancellor most likely to move up to chancellor, from New Castle County. There was also Karen Valihura, a partner in the Wilmington office of Skadden Arps, a global powerhouse of a law firm.
Then there was Sam Glasscock III, the Sussex entrant, already on court as a master, a lesser judicial officer. Glasscock is a creature of the Sussex courts, a former law clerk for Chandler and for Bill Lee, the Superior Court ex-judge who later ran for governor as a Republican.
"Everybody, including all the judges down here, we were afraid the push would come from the Wilmington corporate area," said Pete Schwartzkopf, the ranking Sussex Countian in the state House of Representatives as the Democratic majority leader.
Markell nominated Strine for chancellor and slotted in Glasscock for the derivative opening as vice chancellor. Both are awaiting confirmation by the state Senate.
Sussex prevailed. People there like to think they had something to do with it.
"It's the feeling that we're the lower end of the totem pole. We're about halfway proud of that. It's the feeling that we always have to fight for our due," said Gary Simpson, the Senate's Republican minority leader who is from Sussex.
Sussex made sure it was heard from. There happened to be a meeting last week between Markell and all of the Sussex legislators. John Atkins, a Democratic state representative from Millsboro, brought up the subject, and the rest chimed in unanimously for a Sussex judge.
Geography trumped any partisan divide. Democrats and Republicans but all Sussex Countians.
The Sussex legislators mostly credit Chandler for making the case. Chandler knows Markell well. They spent 10 years together on the Board of Pardons while Markell was the state treasurer.
"The court will be in great shape with Vice Chancellor Strine as chancellor and Sam Glasscock as vice chancellor. Every governor can look back and point to a defining judicial appointment or two, and I predict these will rank up there with the defining appointments made by this governor," Chandler said.
"I also think it is important for the court to have judges resident in each county. Sussex is the largest county in land area, the second largest in population and the fastest growing. Its docket is second only to New Castle County," he added.
"Although the Sussex legislators may have credited me for this decision, we all know better. I am just proud that the Sussex lawmakers all united on this issue, as that speaks volumes about them, and is why I count them all as friends."
Statements like that speak volumes about why Chandler made his mark as a judge.
Markell for his part is resisting the argument that geography was destiny. True, he met with the Sussex legislators. True, he consulted with Chandler. That was as far as it went.
"The Sussex legislators, for whom I have great respect, don't sit in on the interviews. The decision who to select is very much mine. Sam Glasscock has been doing much of the work that a vice chancellor does. It was a judgment call between very good people," Markell said.
Perhaps Markell doth protest too much. Take it from Mike Castle, who was a two-term Republican governor and incidentally put Chandler on Chancery as a vice chancellor. Castle knows all about Delaware's three-party system of Democrats, Republicans and Sussex County.
"I'm not surprised, because that's where the retiring chancellor is from," Castle said. "I felt this was the way it was going to come down from a political point of view, from a competency point of view, and what the heck, they've also got a fancy courthouse down there to keep filled."
As Sussex celebrates, it could not help but invoke the memory of Thurman Adams, who was their man in the Senate as the Democratic president pro tem.
Before Adams died in 2009, there was never a question that Sussex would get a judge when it wanted one, or the governor could forget about getting a confirmation vote. If anyone dared to suggest a judicial nomination should go to the best person, Adams would declare the best person was from Sussex County.
"We all stick together," said Bill Lee, the ex-judge whose own Sussex roots go back to Colonial America on his mother's side. "Thurman had a real hand in that with the legislators. There was no politics when it came to the judges, and that carries on."
Thurman Adams can rest in peace.