Posted: Aug. 9, 2010


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The joke at the party marking Joe Farnan's departure from the federal bench was, he was the only guy whose retirement present was a briefcase.

Farnan's final day as a judge on the U.S. District Court in Wilmington was the last Friday in July. On the first Monday in August, he was already setting up a new law firm, to be called Farnan LLP.

"I'm at a warehouse in Norristown picking out a conference table," he said from his cell phone one day last week. "I'm looking forward to the next 10 years."

With 25 years as a judge, Farnan was the steadiest presence on a court that has spent years in a state of flux. His exit extends it.

The lifetime tenure for federal judges is not granted easily, not with the political infighting that comes with presidential appointments and senatorial prerogatives. Delaware is supposed to have four district judges, but the court has been one short since December 2006.

That vacancy finally was filled Thursday, when the Senate confirmed Leonard Stark, a Rhodes scholar who is already a familiar figure in the courthouse as a magistrate judge, a lesser judicial officer. Now the wait begins for someone to replace Farnan.

Tom Carper, the state's Democratic senior senator, has done his part by sending a list of three judicial candidates to the Obama administration for its consideration.

The list is confidential, but this is Delaware. Not much stays secret for long.

The names are said to be: Linda Ammons, the dean of Widener law school; Richard Andrews, the state prosecutor who is a former first assistant U.S. attorney; and C.J. Seitz, the managing partner at Connolly Bove Lodge & Hutz, as well as the son of the late Collins Seitz, one of the most famous judges in Delaware history.

The next judge will be the second occupant of the "Farnan seat," so designated because Farnan was the first one in it. He was appointed in 1985 by Ronald Reagan when the court was expanded.

It is not exactly typical for retired judges to re-embark with a start-up law firm, particularly federal judges who customarily take senior status at full pay, currently $174,000 a year, and a reduced caseload, or else accept lucrative positions with major law firms. This could be particularly true for Farnan, because of the stature of the district court here as a forum for high-stakes patent cases.

Farnan, however, is a supple 65. Besides, it is a family matter.

Of the five Farnan children, four are lawyers, and two of them will join their father in the new firm at 919 Market St. in Wilmington, along with two associates. The firm expects its practice to be complex commercial litigation, serious personal injury and probably some arbitration work for the ex-judge.

It has been some time since Farnan was last in private practice. Before he was a judge, he was the U.S. attorney, and before that, he was the chief deputy attorney general, and before that, he was the New Castle County attorney. This takes him back to 1976.

Throughout the federal courthouse, people have been lamenting the absence of Farnan, a no-nonsense thinker.

"He was 'simply mah-velous,'" Greg Sleet, the chief judge of the court, said in a telephone interview from his chambers.

"He had the perfect temperament to be a judge. His intellect and the way he cut to the chase and got to the crux of the matter helped out all of us. I would walk down the hall to get his advice, if not run."

Even outside the courthouse, Farnan was known for his insight. His friend Pete Hayward, the secretary of the University of Delaware, said a telephone call with Farnan was like talking to "Moses, Deep Throat, the Godfather and Uncle Remus."

In the world of political and judicial office, where the inhabitants can become overly fond of the idea that their word is law, Farnan offered up a singular act of graciousness.

At the time he was presiding as the chief judge, a seven-year assignment that rotates to the senior member of the court. He realized if he served his full term, it would impact the opportunity first for Sue Robinson and then for Sleet to be the chief judge. Farnan cut his term short, not just in the name of collegiality, but history.

"It would be just like Joe to count forward and realize that if he served his full term, the first woman and the first black didn't get to be the chief judge," Sleet said.

Farnan spent his last weeks listening to the courthouse crowd, particularly his fellow judges, tell him they would never forget him. He took it all in and did something about it. He awarded to a select circle a Judge Joe Farnan bobble-head.

"I'm looking at it," Sleet said.

After all that time on the bench, trust Farnan to know how to get in the last word.