Posted: Jan. 3, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

With an overflow crowd attending the swearing-in for U.S. District Judge Kent A. Jordan on Friday, the court system became the first branch of government here to plunge into the swirl of political ceremonies that customarily accompanies the New Year, particularly one following an election.

Jordan's emotional oath-taking actually was a bonus event for the season, the result of his confirmation coming late in the 2002 congressional session, but it gave the judiciary a rare chance to outshine the other governmental branches where there is a tradition of ringing in the year.

The others won't be far behind.

The Congress takes its turn next week, when it convenes under the great Capitol dome in Washington, an occasion for two Delawareans to make history. Democrat Joseph R. Biden Jr. will become the first Delawarean sworn in for a sixth term in the Senate, and Republican Michael N. Castle similarly will be the first from the state to serve six terms in the House of Representatives.

After all of those federal festivities, the state government will have its day in Dover. The new General Assembly will begin its 2003-2004 term on Jan. 14, and before the month is out, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner will take center stage for the executive branch as the first-term Democrat delivers the annual State of the State address.

The pomp that precedes the general drudgery of governmental workings began in high style with the robing of Kent Jordan, who joined the Wilmington-based federal court where he once clerked and where he appeared both as an assistant U.S. attorney and a lawyer in private practice.

"We are very pleased to welcome him home," said Chief Judge Sue L. Robinson.

More than 300 people were invited to the ceremony, which took place on a rainy afternoon in the federal courthouse in Wilmington before a host of federal and state judges, lawyers, family and other well-wishers.

It was a typical example of Delaware's political cross-pollination. Jordan, a Republican appointee of President George W. Bush, chose speakers from both parties, asking Castle as well as Democratic Sen. Thomas R. Carper.

Jordan, 45, of Hockessin, joined the four-judge court as a replacement for Roderick R. McKelvie, who left last year for a patent law practice in Washington after spending 10 years on the bench building a national reputation in intellectual property matters. McKelvie was on hand for the ceremony.

Like the other three judges on the court, Jordan is a former federal prosecutor. Judges Joseph J. Farnan Jr. and Gregory M. Sleet were U.S. attorneys, and Robinson and Jordan were assistant U.S. attorneys. All of the judges have lifetime appointments, currently at a salary of $150,000 a year. Of the four, Sleet is the only Democratic appointee.

There is little in public life that is more joyful than a judicial investiture, which usually represents not only the pinnacle of a legal career but the fulfillment of a longtime dream. Jordan's was an emotional outpouring.

While some new judges become teary or perhaps choke up, Jordan had himself a full-blown cry, tissue and all, although somehow he managed to do it decorously. It appeared to reach its height as he talked about his tutelage under James L. Latchum, the now-retired judge for whom Jordan clerked in the mid-1980s. Latchum was unable to attend the ceremony, although his wife did.

Jordan said his mentor taught him to administer justice impartially and to treat everyone equally. Latchum also instilled in his clerk an urgent sense of mission because of his constant question, "Got that done yet?" Jordan revealed he has kept Latchum's picture in his office ever since, perched where it could look over his shoulder and keep him on task.

Jordan made a promise -- to remember what it was like to be a prosecutor, to represent criminal defendants, to advocate for clients in private practice and to be a member of an in-house legal team, all positions he held in a varied legal career.

Among the speakers, Carper and Castle both envied Jordan his lifetime tenure. Castle noted the "distinguished" judges presiding and quipped, "I call them 'distinguished' because of the insecurity of my job. I'm a lawyer, and I may have to go back to it."

Another participant was Brett M. Kavanaugh, the White House associate counsel. His presence symbolized how notoriously quirky judicial nominations can be -- with Jordan's route to the bench being more circuitous than most. It had its genesis in the 2000 election, which left Delaware without a senator from the president's party.

Presidents customarily rely on senators who share their political affiliation to recommend nominees for the federal bench. In this case, Bush not only turned to Castle, a congressman, but took the unconventional step of asking him to forward three names. Castle did, naming Wilmington lawyer Karen L. Valihura as his top choice.

Instead, the White House chose Jordan. It seems there was this fellow Kavanaugh there, and he once was a law clerk for the federal court in Wilmington, and an assistant U.S. attorney named Kent Jordan was nice to law clerks and included them in the weekly pickup basketball games. Not that Jordan got to be a judge on the strength of a passing association, but it never hurts to see a friendly face when the stakes are high. 

Naturally there were waves of praise for Jordan and the occasional funny story, too. Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia C. Hannigan, not only a former colleague but the president of the Delaware State Bar Association, told a tale at Jordan's expense.

Hannigan and Jordan were representing the government in a land condemnation case that Hannigan called "history's most boring jury trial." Judge Latchum was presiding.

At one point Jordan startled everyone by leaping to object. Latchum responded, "Who cares? We all have glass eyeballs from listening to the bunch of you." The objection was overruled.

As for Jordan himself, in addition to being misty, he was humorous. With speaker after speaker lauding his fine qualities, he quipped, "I should very much like to get to know myself."