Posted: Aug. 22, 2016

WILLIAM T. QUILLEN, 1935-2016 

By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

William Tatem Quillen was a man of the judicial branch, one of the best Delaware ever had, but he had a soft spot for the executive side of government.

Quillen was a judge's judge, formal, formidable and far-seeing, as he commanded the highest reaches of the court system.

He sat on the Supreme Court. He was the chancellor, presiding over the Court of Chancery, as well as writing its history, and anyone who dared speak of the state's most storied bench with a shorthand reference to "Chancery Court" earned his judicial displeasure.

Even so, Quillen most identified with the workaday Superior Court, which was his alpha and his omega, his first and last posts in the judiciary, or as he put it, "In my parochial opinion, you can hardly consider yourself a Delaware judge unless you have been here."

Still, his eye kept sliding toward the executive branch, so much so that he not only worked there as a youthful aide and later as a secretary of state, but he also ran for governor himself as the Democratic candidate in 1984.

He left his mark on the executive office at the federal level, too. Without Bill Quillen, a certain vice president might not have returned home to Delaware after law school.

Just now, Quillen was getting close to the governor's office again. John Carney, his beloved son-in-law who married his daughter Tracey, is looking all but certain to be Delaware's next Democratic governor, and how heartbreaking it is Quillen did not live to see it.

Quillen died on Friday at the age of 81, and Delaware officialdom bowed its head.

"Simply put, Delaware is a better, more just, and stronger state because of his life and work," Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, said in a statement.

Quillen's life was a mosaic. For all of his accomplishments, they did not form an upwards trajectory but were rather pieced together by a man with an exploring mind and a wayfaring soul.

He was on and off the bench. He was in and out of the executive branch. He roamed through elite law firms, academic assignments, a prestigious general counsel post at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the JAG Corps of the U.S. Air Force.

Just about anything Quillen did might been a lifetime achievement for someone else.

Quillen's call to public life came from Charles Terry, as a law clerk and then as a staff assistant after Terry was elected the Democratic governor in 1964, but Terry, who had been the chief justice, knew judicial material when he saw it and put Quillen on the Superior Court at the age of 31.

Nearly two decades later in 1984, after a number of public and private opportunities had brought Quillen back to the judiciary, he tried to do what Terry had done, namely, come off the Supreme Court and get elected governor.

It might have been the only time Quillen's intellect -- Wilmington Friends School, Williams College, Harvard Law and a masters in law from the University of Virginia -- tripped him up.

Quillen was running for the Democratic nomination against Sherman Tribbitt, who had been the governor but lost his re-election campaign to Pete du Pont and the Republicans in 1976 and was trying to make a comeback.

Quillen challenged Tribbitt to a series of debates, but Tribbitt, a hardware store owner whose homespun politics were most suited to fire-hall chicken dinners and the state fair, got out of it by throwing Quillen's distinguished background against him.

"Justice Quillen is driven by the desire to prove that his lawyer's style is better than my manner of speaking," Tribbitt said, and that was that.

Quillen won the nomination, but it was not a good year for a Democrat to be running for governor. He was up against Mike Castle, the Republican candidate who was Pete du Pont's lieutenant governor, and du Pont was riding high as he finished up two terms.

Besides, Castle was an "I-Like-Mike" kind of guy, and Quillen came across like someone people really ought to be calling "Your Honor."

Castle won, but Quillen got in the last word. At Return Day, the post-election revelry in Georgetown, Quillen quipped, "The people chose well. They might have chosen better."

Quillen's reach exceeded his grasp. Wherever he went, he brought wisdom.

Terry put him on the Superior Court, Tribbitt made him the chancellor, du Pont named him to the Supreme Court, and Tom Carper, as the Democratic governor in the 1990s, tapped him for secretary of state and then for an encore on the Superior Court.

Bill Lee, a fellow Superior Court judge who also came off the bench to run for governor, except as a Republican, called him irreplaceable when Quillen finally left the judicial system for good in 2000.

"Bill was a compass for us. What makes Bill Quillen unique is he has a great legal mind, but he also is blessed with great common sense," Lee said.

There might have been no time Quillen was more far-seeing with more consequence than the time he did a favor for a friend of the family.

Quillen came from the family that owned Quillen Brothers Ford in New Castle, and at Eastertime in 1968, when he was already a judge, another car dealer asked if Quillen would meet with his son who was finishing up law school and not necessarily planning to come back to Delaware.

The car dealer was Joe Biden Sr., and the son was Joe Biden Jr., a student at Syracuse law school with not very good grades and already married to a Syracuse school teacher named Neilia, who was pregnant with a boy they would call Beau.

Quillen saw something in Biden and set up an interview for him with a leading law firm in Wilmington, and the firm took a chance. It was corporate law, it was not for Biden, and he did not stay there for long, but he was home, and soon he would be in politics.

Many years later, when Biden was a Democratic senator, he recommended Quillen for an opening on the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in 1999, but Quillen withdrew from consideration because of a prostate cancer scare.

Not that Quillen really needed another judgeship, anyway.