Posted: Feb. 3, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

In a surprise move, Family Court Chief Judge Vincent J. Poppiti has decided to leave the bench about a year before his 12-year term expires and become a partner at Blank Rome, a law firm headquartered in Philadelphia with a growing Wilmington office.

A mainstay of the judiciary with almost a quarter-century in the court system, Poppiti expects to depart for private practice toward the end of March, a date he said he will firm up after a discussion with Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.

"I'm in the last year of my term. I thought it was important to accept an opportunity sooner rather than later," Poppiti said in an interview Monday evening.

An official announcement from Blank Rome, saying Poppiti is joining the firm, is expected as early as Tuesday.

Poppiti is only the third judge to run the statewide Family Court, which was set up in its current form in 1971. Its 15 judges hear civil and criminal matters, including divorces and juvenile crimes.

Poppiti's replacement must be nominated by Minner, a first-term Democrat, and confirmed by the state Senate for a 12-year term with a current salary of $145,300 a year. Poppiti is a Democrat, but he could be succeeded by either a Democrat or a Republican to maintain the Family Court's political balance required by law. Currently there are eight Democrats, including Poppiti, and seven Republicans on the bench.

Poppiti became the Family Court's chief judge on Jan. 31, 1992, after an appointment by Gov. Michael N. Castle, a Republican now in the U.S. House of Representatives. Poppiti's term was set to expire on Jan. 31, 2004.

Poppiti moved to the Family Court from the Superior Court, where he had served since 1983, spending his last two years there as the resident judge in New Castle County with the responsibility for running the court upstate. He began his judicial career on the Family Court in 1979 before shifting to the Superior Court.

Judicial service, however, is hardly all that Poppiti is recognized for. He is also known for his singing and acting talent, performing at various times with the Delaware Children's Theatre and the First State Gridiron Dinner & Show, which is a political roast. He also has been willing to cook the pungent smelts for St. Anthony's Italian Festival.

Poppiti's decision to leave the bench came rather suddenly. Its catalyst was a feeler from Thomas P. Preston, a Wilmington lawyer and longtime friend who joined Blank Rome as a partner last month after leaving Reed Smith, a Pittsburgh-based firm with a Wilmington office.

The two had talked for years about practicing together someday, and the time seemed right to Poppiti. "It happened quick. It clearly was not an easy decision after 24 years on the bench," he said.

Poppiti plans to have a practice in domestic law and also mediation. He will be part of a 55-year-old firm with more than 440 lawyers in 11 offices, including 21 attorneys in its Wilmington location in the Chase Manhattan Centre at 12th and Market Streets.

Poppiti regards his upcoming private practice as an extension of what he has always done. "I've had a career making decisions for others when they can't," he said. "This is the right place to be."