Posted: June 2, 2014


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

What a legal smorgasbord awaits Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, as he decides on a new justice for the Delaware Supreme Court.

Markell is said to have received four names from his Judicial Nominating Commission, which screens the applicants for judgeships and recommends a list that is supposed to be confidential, but it rarely is in a state this small with interest so high.

Markell gets experienced trial judges on the list. He gets masters of corporate law, the state's signature practice. He gets Democrats and even a Republican. He gets candidates who are women for a court that is sorely lacking in them.

The nominee will replace Jack Jacobs, who is retiring on June 25 after 11 years on the state's highest court as part of his judicial tenure dating back to 1985.

The candidates are said to be: Larry Hamermesh, a corporate law professor at Widener law school; Jan Jurden, a Superior Court judge; Karen Valihura, a corporate law attorney at Skadden, a global giant with an office in Wilmington; and Jim Vaughn Jr., the Superior Court president judge.

All four of them either declined comment or made themselves unavailable, as candidates generally do to avoid upstaging the governor.

It is hardly surprising for Jurden and Vaughn to be under consideration. They were both recently in the running for chief justice, when Markell chose to elevate Leo Strine Jr. from the Court of Chancery, the renowned forum for corporate law.

The list provides a variation on a familiar path to the Supreme Court. While its members are often plucked from the Court of Chancery as a means of preserving the franchise, in this case Hamermesh and Valihura may not be coming off the court, but they are steeped in corporate law.

The candidates bring unusual political diversity with Hamermesh, Jurden and Vaughn as the Democrats on the list and Valihura as the lone Republican. This can be explained.

The state constitution requires the court system to be balanced politically. With the departure of Jacobs, who is a Democrat, the five-member Supreme Court will be left with two Democrats (Strine and Carolyn Berger) and two Republicans (Randy Holland and Henry duPont Ridgely), so the opening can go either way.

For Markell, this selection will be his seventh appointment or reappointment to either the Supreme Court or the Court of Chancery, and it is being noticed more and more pointedly that he has done nothing yet to dial back the state's two top courts as a male bastion.

Berger is the only woman, and she got there before Markell took his oath as governor in 2009, but he has a new chance to modify the court by nominating either Jurden or Valihura.

Markell's appointment comes with a little extra suspense for the state Senate, which will be voting on the confirmation, because of the legislative calendar.

The legislative session ends June 30. If Markell sends the name of a sitting judge, it would create a new vacancy that the state constitution requires him to fill within 60 days. That would force the Senate to return to Dover for a special session smack in the middle of campaign season.

Hamermesh or Valihura, the Senate gets to go home. Jurden or Vaughn, it has to come back.