Posted: Sept. 25, 2014


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Since when did Ruth Ann Minner become the governor again?

Jim Vaughn Jr. for the Delaware Supreme Court would have made perfect sense for Minner, the immediate past governor.

Minner was a Kent County Democrat who looked out for her own, for Kent County out of principle and for her fellow Kent County Democrats out of conviction, and that was the way it was.

She made Myron Steele, who once chaired the Kent County Democratic Party, the chief justice when there was an overwhelming clamor from the bench and bar for Randy Holland, but Holland was a Sussex County Republican.

She broke tradition by giving Kent County two of the five seats on the Supreme Court by adding in Henry duPont Ridgely, a Kent County Republican, to go along with Steele, and she made a Kent County Democrat the Superior Court president judge by putting in Jim Vaughn Jr., who also happened to be the namesake son of a Kent County Democratic senator Minner had served with.

What does not make perfect sense is Vaughn's appointment to be a Supreme Court justice came on Monday from Jack Markell, the current Democratic governor.

About the last thing anybody expected is Jack Markell would be channeling Ruth Ann Minner.

Markell is as much a modern governor as Minner was a throwback. He comes from Newark with its academic bent -- his father was a professor at the University of Delaware, and his neighbor was Tubby Raymond, the football coach who was like a second father -- and he had to fight through Minner and the other old-line Democrats to get the nomination for governor over John Carney, her lieutenant governor who is now the congressman.

The confidential list of finalists, sent to Markell by his Judicial Nominating Commission, was said to include others more in his own image -- Jan Jurden, a Superior Court judge, and Joe Slights, a former Superior Court judge now in private practice at Morris James, and Rick Alexander, a corporate lawyer who is the managing partner at Morris Nichols Arsht & Tunnell.

All of the finalists were Democrats, as they had to be, to maintain the political balance required for the judiciary by the state constitution.

Still, out popped Vaughn. It was like old times, when Kent County could rely not just on Minner, but also on Nancy Cook, who used to be a Kent County Democratic senator known as the Queen of Legislative Hall, to look out for their home base.

Without Vaughn as a justice, Kent County would have been shut out of the state's top court. Steele retired last year, and Ridgely recently moved to Sussex County. Leo Strine Jr., the new chief justice, and Karen Valihura, are from New Castle County, and Holland is from Sussex.

It appears that old-school politics still rules inside Legislative Hall, where geography counts and it does not hurt that Vaughn is regarded in the Senate as a sort of favorite son.

Besides, there is talk that Strine, the rookie chief justice, might have pushed a little too hard for Slights, and earned himself a joint reminder from the executive and legislative branches about checks and balances.

Vaughn's nomination to a 12-year term will come before the Senate on Oct. 8 during a special session, where he is expected to be confirmed easily, although not without a question or two from the Republicans, who are in the minority.

Patti Blevins, the Senate's Democratic president pro tem, predicted no problems for Vaughn. "It sounds like a wonderful selection to me. It is an inspired one. He's so highly regarded, and he's got such a good temperament and an outstanding work ethic. I'd be surprised if there was an objection," she said.

Gary Simpson, the Senate's Republican minority leader, was a little more reserved. "He's a good nominee, but I hate to see somebody coming in for a 12-year term who is 65 years old. I'd like to hear his explanation," he said.

If Vaughn is confirmed, it means Markell must appoint someone to replace him as the president judge of the Superior Court. It also means the Senate must be summoned for another unwanted special session.

This could be called the continuing revenge of Carolyn Berger.

After being passed over for chief justice, Berger rancorously gave notice she would retire from the Supreme Court as of Sept. 1, two months after the end of the 2014 legislative session.

With the governor constitutionally required to name new judges within 60 days, it forced Markell to bring the Senate back to Dover to consider Vaughn as Berger's replacement amid the election season, a time nobody wanted. A replacement for Vaughn would call for another special session, probably amid the holiday season, another time nobody wants.

So many new judges, so little time. This is becoming Markell's judiciary, or at least the most prominent part of it is.

Leo Strine Jr. chief justice 2014
Randy Holland justice 2011 (reappointment)
Karen Valihura justice 2014
Jim Vaughn Jr. justice 2014 (awaiting confirmation)
Henry duPont Ridgely justice term is up in 2016
Andy Bouchard chancellor 2014
Travis Laster vice chancellor 2009
Sam Glasscock III vice chancellor 2011
John Noble vice chancellor 2012 (reappointment)
Don Parsons vice chancellor term is up in 2015

Markell, now in his sixth year in office, has appointed or reappointed every member of the Supreme Court except for Ridgely, and Markell will get to his seat, too. Ridgely's term is up in July 2016, before a new governor is elected, but it is widely anticipated Ridgely will retire earlier, perhaps before the end of the year.

The situation is the same for the Court of Chancery, the famous forum for business law. Markell has appointed or reappointed everyone there except for Don Parsons, a vice chancellor whose term is up in October 2015.

Markell has made four appointments to the state's two top courts this year alone -- Strine as chief justice, Andy Bouchard as chancellor, and Valihura and Vaughn as justices.

All of those choices, as deserving as they might be, had the governor giving a political nod to demanding constituencies -- Strine and Bouchard to the corporate bar, Valihura to women and Vaughn to Kent County.

Maybe Markell will make the next appointment or two for himself. Let the guessing games begin.