Posted: Sept. 11, 2014


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Even the judicial branch got in on the act of vetting candidates this week.

While the voters went to the polls on Primary Day to winnow the field for executive and legislative offices, the third branch of government was involved in a judicial selection in its own way.

Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, got a list of candidates from his Judicial Nomination Commission to consider appointing as a new justice to replace Carolyn Berger, whose last day on the Supreme Court was Sept. 1.

There are known to be four names on the list, which is supposed to be confidential but never stays that way in a state as small as Delaware with interest in its top court so high.

The finalists are said to be: Jim Vaughn Jr., the Superior Court president judge; Jan Jurden, a Superior Court judge; Joe Slights, a past Superior Court judge now a partner at Morris James; and Rick Alexander, a corporate attorney who is the managing partner at Morris Nichols Arsht & Tunnell.

"The names have come up, and the governor will be conducting interviews this week," Andy Lippstone, the governor's counsel, acknowledged without confirming who was on the list.

All of the candidates either declined or did not make themselves available to comment.

The state Senate, now in recess until next year, will  be returning to Dover on Wednesday, Oct. 8, for a confirmation vote in a special session, which Markell was forced to call because the state constitution gives the governor a 60-day limit to nominate someone new for this 12-year term.

All Supreme Court openings involve some intrigue, and this one has its fair share.

It is part of an extreme makeover for the bench, where five members -- Myron Steele as chief justice with Randy Holland, Carolyn Berger, Jack Jacobs and Henry duPont Ridgely as the justices -- sat together for nine years, but now three of them are gone and another is widely assumed to be going, perhaps giving notice before the year is out.

Steele led the exodus last fall, and the scramble to replace him set up what has followed since.

Leo Strine Jr., who was the chancellor, was chosen to be the chief, but it did not quench the judicial ambitions of the other three finalists, known to be Berger, Vaughn and Jurden.

Vaughn and Jurden repeated as candidates when Jacobs left in June, but the nomination went to Karen Valihura, a corporate litigator from Skadden.

What came next was a triple whammy, jolting the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Berger let it be known she was miffed at being passed over for chief justice and plotted her own departure. Her resignation arrived in the governor's office within hours of the announcement of Valihura's appointment and not only juggled the courts membership again, but had the side effect of demanding a special session in the heat of the campaign season.

It also led to another opportunity for Vaughn and Jurden to be considered for the court, this time along with Slights and Alexander, and it certainly would not be surprising if the runners-up for the nomination reappear for Ridgely's seat, if he leaves as anticipated.

In keeping with the political season, all of the departures created some jockeying between Democrats and Republicans.

The state constitution requires the court to be as politically balanced as possible. Before the makeover, it had three Democrats (Steele, Berger and Jacobs) and two Republicans (Holland and Ridgely), and it stayed that way when Strine, who is a Democrat, replaced Steele, but Valihura's arrival flipped it to three Republicans.

That balance of power is not expected to last long, not with a Democratic governor and a Democratic-run Senate. All of the candidates for the current opening are Democrats, and the court could be returned to a Democratic majority shortly, if Ridgely goes.

So politics has its say in the third branch of government, too. Not to mention Berger's exit, coming abruptly with four years left in her term, created an upheaval as stunning as the sudden flight from the Democratic treasurer's primary by Chip Flowers.