Posted: April 14, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The unsubtle campaign to make Supreme Court Justice Randy J. Holland the next Delaware chief justice was in full-throated cry Tuesday at an elite dinner for the judges and lawyers who form his most devoted constituency.

They called themselves the "Justice Randy Holland fan club." They read wonderful things about him from letters written by four U.S. Supreme Court justices, ranging in philosophy from Sandra Day O'Connor on the right to Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the left.

They made him the first recipient of the James L. Latchum Professionalism Award, an honor named after the U.S. District Court judge who died in January. They had a drawing done of him, stopping just short of the portraiture that is the ultimate prize that the bench and bar bestow on their own.

After that outpouring, if Holland does become chief justice, it may be a letdown.

"I'm overwhelmed by the entire evening," Holland said.

The event, attended by 215 judges and lawyers at the Wilmington riverfront, was a gathering of the state's four inns of court, some of the 340 chapters chartered around the country to foster excellence, ethics, mentoring and fellowship within the legal profession.

The program was designed to feature an elaborate tribute to Holland in recognition for the four-year term he is completing as the president of the American Inns of Court, the national umbrella, but Holland's past accomplishments were not what the crowd had on its collective mind.

"Do you think he's going to get it?" judges and lawyers asked one another.

Their thoughts were on Gov. Ruth Ann Minner's choice for chief justice, a decision expected any day now. Holland is said to be in the running, along with Supreme Court Justices Myron T. Steele and Carolyn Berger, to replace retiring Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey, who is holding over in the post since his 12-year term ended April 7.

In the raw political trenches, as opposed to the rarefied legal air, Steele is regarded as the front-runner. Like Minner, he is a Kent County Democrat, even serving as the Kent County Democratic chairman when she was a legislator, schooled in the same bare-knuckled politics that she was. When Minner was inaugurated as governor, it was Steele who was her escort in the receiving line.

Holland is a Sussex County Republican, the gentleman justice who greeted the dinner crowd in a courtly fashion, singling out no one as he said, "Everyone here is a distinguished guest." Berger is a Democrat like Minner but from upstate.

Delaware's courts are required by the state constitution to be balanced politically, and the current composition of the judiciary gives Minner the leeway to nominate either a Democrat or a Republican as the chief justice, subject to Senate confirmation.

Until a month ago, Steele seemed unstoppable. Then he became entangled in an ugly little brouhaha over a volatile rent-cap case, the aftermath of which has mushroomed into a disciplinary investigation looking into an ill-timed conversation he had with one of the attorneys who is a friend. A report on it is due.

Steele's troubles clearly emboldened Holland's camp. In addition to the tribute at the inns of court event, Holland was showcased about two weeks ago at Veasey's retirement dinner, where the bench and bar contrived to have Holland introduce Veasey. It certainly looked like a wishful passing of the torch.

Steele attended Veasey's dinner. He was missing from Holland's tribute. He did send his congratulations along with word of a prior commitment.

Among those praising Holland was U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the only politician at the dinner. As the Democratic governor, Carper nominated Holland for a second Supreme Court term in 1999.

It came across as another one of those messages. Whatever Minner does, it seemed to convey, here was the governor who got it right.