Posted: March 26, 2004
AN AWKWARD TIME TO SAY "OOPS"
By Celia Cohen
If Myron T. Steele is nominated to be Delaware's next chief justice, an ill-timed conversation he had 10 days ago with a lawyer in an emotionally-charged rent case could come back to haunt him.
State senators are saying they would want Steele to explain himself if Gov. Ruth Ann Minner submits his name for confirmation to the center seat on the state's highest court, where he has sat as a justice since 2000.
"I would want a better explanation than I have seen to date. I'm not saying I would hang anybody over this, but I'd like to see a better explanation," said state Sen. Steven H. Amick, a Newark Republican who is the only lawyer in the 21-member Senate.
Steele is said to be one of three candidates, along with Justices Randy J. Holland and Carolyn Berger, on a confidential list sent to the governor last week by her Judicial Nominating Commission to consider as a replacement for Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey, who is retiring April 7 at the end of his term.
Steele, who is a Kent County Democrat like Minner and has spent more than 15 years sitting on the state's major courts, is regarded as the front-runner for a post that would give him a 12-year term not just as the head of the five-member Supreme Court, but as the leader of the entire 54-member judiciary.
An appointment for chief justice is as delicate a nomination as there is, because of the status of the court system as a source of state pride and revenue. Its jewel is the Court of Chancery, the renowned bench for business law, but recently the Superior Court has chimed in as principally responsible for Delaware's ranking by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as the best legal system in the country for three years in a row.
With the stakes so high, it is a bad time for even a whiff of controversy, but that is where Steele finds himself. It has to do with a case allowing the removal of rent caps for hundreds of Sussex County mobile-home tenants who already were agitated enough to form themselves into an association and clamor for help from their legislators.
Steele participated in a three-judge panel hearing the case, which was an appeal of a Superior Court opinion that had gone against the tenants. As first reported by the Cape Gazette, in between the Supreme Court hearing on March 16 and the court decision issued formally on March 17, the tenants found out from a manager for the mobile-home park corporation they had lost.
The tenants were outraged by the leak and blamed it on a conversation between Steele and John W. Paradee, the Dover lawyer who represented the corporation. The two are friends.
Judges are not supposed to talk to lawyers on one side without the lawyers from the other side, to prevent anyone from having an advantage. The situation was serious enough for Veasey to get involved and write a letter of explanation to Paradee and Olha N.M. Rybakoff, the deputy attorney general who represented the tenants.
Veasey called the lapse a clerical error. According to the letter, Steele and the other justices decided the case shortly after the oral arguments, and Steele told his secretary to fax their ruling immediately to the two lawyers, even though it was not officially to be docketed until the next day. The faxes were not sent, but Steele did not know it when he spoke with Paradee.
"This is an unfortunate, but innocent, administrative error that the court regrets. But because it was innocent and in good faith, there is no basis for disciplinary action against either Justice Steele or Mr. Paradee," Veasey wrote.
Something that may not carry disciplinary action still can have political ramifications, particularly because it remains unclear why Steele and Paradee would talk when they did and because there are angry and suspicious tenants out there.
It has the attention of senators who would be casting the votes if Minner nominates Steele for chief justice.
"It doesn't promote his chances, I'll put it that way," said Senate President Pro Tem Thurman G. Adams Jr., a Bridgeville Democrat. "It is very possible it will be brought up."
"Trouble, no. Questions, yes," said Senate Minority Leader John C. Still III, a Dover Republican. "I consider Myron a friend, and I need to get some clarification."
In a telephone interview on Friday, Steele said if the time comes for him to answer questions, he will answer them.
It is too early to tell how much, if any, fallout there will be in the choice of the next chief justice. Minner has yet even to interview the candidates, according to Gregory B. Patterson, the governor's communications director, and the Senate has to wait for her.
In what could become a complication for Steele, it does not appear that he has the sort of strong Senate patron who could silence serious objections, if they occur.
Adams has made no secret of his regard for Holland, a fellow Sussex Countian, even if Holland is a Republican. Adams noted it was Holland whom he asked to administer the oath making him the president pro tem -- "that tells you what I think of him."
Sen. Nancy W. Cook, the Senate's leading Kent County Democrat, had nothing to say about Steele. Nor would Still take up for Kent County pride from the Republican side, saying only, "What's nice is to get the best person. If it's Kent County, that's a plus."
Meanwhile, there is something of a campaign arising from elements of the bench and bar for Holland, who has sat on the Supreme Court since 1986.
For example, a press release arrived Friday from the Administrative Office of the Courts, recognizing Holland for a "high and rare honor from a prestigious and centuries-old lawyer organization in England," an award given only to two other U.S. judges, Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and John Paul Stevens. Veasey is quoted.
Amid the uncertainty, Amick, the lawyer in the Senate chamber, is awaiting developments on Steele. "I would not disqualify him because of an incident that happened one time, but it raises issues," he said. "In two or three conversations I've had with lawyers about this, eyebrows have flipped up."
When there is a chief justice in the making, eyebrows matter.