Posted: June 26, 2014
FLIPPING THE SUPREMES
By Celia Cohen
The Delaware Supreme Court is about to be at full strength again, although not for long. It is also about to flip Republican, although probably not for long, either.
This moving target of a court was set in motion Wednesday as the state Senate hastened to confirm Karen Valihura as a justice on the high court.
Everything was happening in a hurry.
The Supreme Court needed someone ASAP to replace Jack Jacobs, whose retirement came the day before, and the Senate itself had no inclination to dwell on another branch of government, not with the clock running out on the legislative session on June 30 and budgets, casino bailouts and agendas looking every bit as long and sinister as a cobra to be dealt with.
The Senate spared a brisk 16 minutes for Valihura's confirmation hearing in front of the Executive Committee, and then in short order the full chamber blasted through a roll call without a word of debate to put her on the court by a vote of 20-0 with one senator absent.
It left for another day any thoughts about a judicial institution that probably ought not to be ordering much letterhead in advance.
It was enough for now to satisfy the immediate need for another justice, as Valihura does. She brings to the court a background in the state's signature practice of business law after spending 25 years as a corporate litigator in the Wilmington office of Skadden, a prodigious firm with a commanding presence in 24 countries.
As Jack Markell, the Democratic governor who nominated Valihura, said in a statement, "Her intellect, experience and thoughtful approach to the law make her an ideal person to help continue our state's tradition of judicial excellence."
Valihura's arrival gives Delaware something it has not seen for 20 years. Despite a Democratic governor and Democratic senators in charge of the chamber, the state will have a Republican Supreme Court.
This is not quite as odd as it seems. The state constitution requires the five-member court to be as politically balanced as possible, so a change in one seat is all it can take to flip it.
Up until now, the court leaned Democratic -- with Leo Strine Jr., the chief justice, along with Carolyn Berger and Jack Jacobs as the Democrats and with Randy Holland and Henry duPont Ridgely as the Republicans -- but it will change, because Valihura is a Republican.
Not that it is much cause for angst or elation either way.
"What flips always flips back," quipped Greg Lavelle, the Senate's Republican minority whip.
No fooling. Especially because the court is not done yet with its revolving judicial door.
Valihura has 30 days to be sworn in for a 12-year term. That would be before the end of July, and then that would leave not much more than a month before another justice exits.
Berger, acknowledging in so many words she was miffed at being passed over for chief justice when Strine was named in January, is out of there on Sept. 1. It will give the court its third new member inside of a year, an unheard-of rate of turnover.
Berger, a Democrat, has to be replaced by a Democrat, but Ridgely, a Republican, is widely assumed to be retiring in the not-too-distant future, and his departure would leave the court with an even political split of 2-2, so his replacement could reconstitute a Democratic Supreme Court.
This new Republican Supreme Court could be about as fleeting as it gets. No surprise there.
In a state that is arguably the bluest in the nation, it seems like the more things change, the more the Democratic stranglehold stays the same.