Who will be Delaware’s next Chief Justice?

Sam Waltz
Sam Waltz

What’s more interesting to break the summer doldrums in off-year politics than some great drama around who the governor may want to appoint to Delaware’s highest judicial office? 

As forecast first and exclusively in this column in early May, Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. announced two months later, after the Fourth of July, his intent to retire from the Delaware Supreme Court years and years early in his return, ostensibly to private practice, at a destination he has not yet disclosed. 

In informal discussions across Delaware’s bench and bar, as well as on the political front, four names tend to regularly emerge as likely finalists. Of course, in the “get noticed” game of Delaware politics, including judicial politics, it’s a cast of dozens who aspire to be “mentioned,” in the hopes of getting attention for future consideration. 

Mentioners, of course, require anonymity, because no one wants to be held hostage to a public comment that may put them on the wrong side of a judicial selection. Among those with whom I’ve chatted are judges, attorneys, elected officials and party leaders. 

Of the four, two reasonably could be regarded as “front runners,” Chancellor Andre Bouchard and Supreme Court Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. 61, who arguably has some of Delaware’s greatest “judicial DNA,” given his father Collins Seitz’s role as a federal judge and in legendary cases in civil rights.  

Each of them was appointed and sworn into their present judicial appointments in spring 2014 by Gov. Jack Markell. Each of them would be “safe appointments” by Gov. John Carney, who will decide, although of course the public hullabaloo around his handling of the TransPerfect case has put Chancellor Bouchard more in the public eye. 

The other two prominently mentioned also are sound choices, but for other reasons. Supreme Court Justice James T. Vaughn Jr., about 70, would be a “conventional” pick in Delaware’s 50-year tradition of merit selection with political consideration. Justice Vaughn is the son of the late prominent influential Smyrna-area Sen. James T. Vaughn Sr., after whom the prison at Smyrna is named. 

Superior Court President Judge Jan R. Jurden is the other. She carries the benefit in a diverse society of being not only a woman, but an openly gay woman married to another attorney. Like Justice Vaughn, she benefits from having been a “trial judge” in Superior Court for nearly 20 years, an important consideration given that the Supreme Court is an appellate court, where appeals of lower court rulings come to be heard. 

In addition, the Chief Justice is Delaware’s top judicial officer, a significant administrative role, as well as judicial, and she benefits from having served in the administrative role as “president judge.” That attribute favors, as well, Chancellor Bouchard, who has similar administrative duties in Chancery, albeit at likely a fraction of the volume of Superior Court.  

When you look at the politics of the selection, three things jump out. 

First, given that each of the four is a sitting judge, filling the 12-year term created by CJ Strine’s resignation would give the governor two appointments, one to the CJ role, and one to replace that judge in her or his current role. 

Second, which favors Vaughn’s selection, he’s sufficiently senior in his career that he is unlikely to serve a full 12-year term either, likely giving Gov. Carney a second nomination to that job deep in a second term, after a CJ Vaughn retirement in five years or so. 

Third, favoring Seitz, is that his wife Gail once worked on Carney’s staff when he was in Congress. 

Let the speculation begin. Or continue. 

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  1. Sam : I was in Philly last week on business and saw a political commercial on local TV re : what I thought was a Delaware state judicial selection process. It was a negative ad highly critical of one candidate for being ” too rich, too white …” ( and something else. ) Sadly I did not write down any of the copy. Can you help me identify whether this was the Delaware Supreme Court opening or, am I way off base, and is this another race ( perhaps not even in Delaware ) ? I was fascinated by the ” pitch ” in the ad since I used to write political ads.

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