Sam Waltz: Strine to Retire Soon?

Sam Waltz
Sam Waltz Founding Publisher

The widely anticipated early retirement of Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. seems to be the state’s “worst-kept secret,” rivaling Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential hopes, and is being discussed openly in some of the state’s loftiest circles.

I’ve reached out to the Chief Justice for comment. I’ve not heard back from him, and frankly I didn’t expect to. He’ll make his announcement on his own schedule, and he deserves to.

He’s accomplished a lot for a mid-career legal counselor, just 55, even more than prestigious jurists 20 years older.

But failing to recognize and perhaps even memorialize the rampant speculation would be journalistic malpractice.

So, at the risk of preempting His Honor, here we are. (I’ve known Leo’s mother and father, a banker and a wealth manager respectively, for years, even longer than I’ve known Leo, but I’d never put them in the awkward position of asking them about it.)

Buttressing this massive speculation — which I first heard two months ago — is the fact that he has not hired any clerks for the court’s next calendar year, which begins in September .

Ordinarily that occurs before the end of the previous year, when such clerks are interviewed and hired. They are prestigious positions, and, in Delaware, it’s not unusual for former clerks themselves to ultimately ascend to the bench.

So far, I’ve chatted about this with some of the state’s highest officials and former officials, about a dozen of them, in the judiciary, in Legislative Hall and even in the lobbying corps and prominent members of Delaware’s bar. Everyone seems to have had heard it, but each asked for anonymity — no one wants to get caught spilling the Chief Justice’s secrets — and then went on to discuss it openly.

Chief Justice Leo Strine assumed office on Feb. 28, 2014, succeeding retiring Chief Justice Myron T. Steele. Previously, he’d served on the Court of Chancery since 1998, appointed there by Gov. Tom Carper, whom he had served as legal counsel. He ascended to head the court as Chancellor in 2011, before he was moved to the Supreme Court in 2014 by Gov. Jack Markell.

(Note, too, that in Delaware, even going on the Bench requires significant ambition. Attorneys must apply to the Judicial Nominating Commission, be interviewed, and be recommended to the governor for the position. It’s not a process for the reticent or modest!)

He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Delaware, and his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He grew up in Hockessin, where his parents and his family still live, and he graduated A.I. du Pont High School in Greenville. He served in some prestigious legal clerkships himself and worked for the prestigious Skadden Arps firm before joining Gov. Carper.

The two big questions on all minds now seem to be …

• When will he announce his retirement?

• What will he do next?

Dealing with the second question first, two things are mentioned.

First, people with his background and accomplishments make a huge personal financial sacrifice in serving on the bench, although it does advance their billing rates when they re-enter private practice.

It’s not out of the realm of the expected to anticipate that Chief Justice Strine could and would pull in $1 million a year, perhaps even more, in private practice. And part of the speculative reason is that he’s at the stage with young adults heading off to college, so his family would benefit from the change.

Beyond that, though, one or two speculated that he really wants to be governor one day, and a lucrative legal career would secure his family’s future for a return to public service in an elected role.

Certainly, he’ll have some competition if he runs in 2024 when the Democrat establishment thinks Gov. Carney will complete his second term. Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long, U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, Insurance Commissioner Trinidad Navarro and Rep. Bryan Townsend are among the dozen or
so names prominently mentioned as prospective Carney successors.

As to the question of when he’ll announce, well…

Speculation centers on the Delaware Bar Association’s annual Bench & Bar Conference, convened at the direction of the Chief Justice himself, this year at 8:30 am on June 14 at the Chase Center on the Riverfront. Interestingly, theme of this year’s conference is “Pathways and Reflections: Adventures in Law.”

“All of us think it will be there, at the Bench & Bar conference,” said one of the state’s highest-placed officials. “Many of us will already be standing, so Leo will automatically have a standing ovation when he announces.”

Historically, that conference had an afternoon-evening component, and that would have taken place later in the day. This year, it starts in the morning, so we’ll see what works out. 

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