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Justice Montgomery-Reeves confirmed to fed court

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DOVER – Delaware Supreme Court Justice Tamika Montgomery-Reeves was confirmed Monday night by the U.S. Senate to a vacancy on the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, opening a second pending vacancy on the state’s high court.

Montgomery-Reeves, who ascended to the state’s Supreme Court in 2019 after serving four years on the influential Court of Chancery, fills the seat left by Judge D. Brooks Smith, who entered senior status in December 2021 after turning 65.

Tamika Montgomery-Reeves | PHOTO COURTESY OF DE COURTS

She fills some big shoes, as Smith is the former chief judge of the circuit and the only judge in the history of the Third Circuit to have served as both a chief district judge and chief of the Court of Appeals.

Following the 53-35 Senate vote, Delaware Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons (D-Del.) congratulated their home judge for her promotion to the court just a step below the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We are glad that a strong bipartisan majority of Senators voted to confirm Justice Tamika Montgomery-Reeves to the federal bench. Her outstanding legal acumen, compassion, and trailblazing efforts make her a truly outstanding judge for the Third Circuit,” the senators said in a joint statement. “All Americans are fortunate to have someone of Justice Montgomery-Reeves’ integrity, intellect, and work ethic on one of the highest courts in the land. Her confirmation also ensures that the Third Circuit comes closer to truly representing the diversity of our people.”

Carl Tobias, law professor at the University of Richmond who has long tracked federal judicial nominations, said he was very impressed by Montgomery-Reeves’ answers during her confirmation hearing.

“She’s been a path breaker all along in the court system, and I think she’ll be a great addition to the Third Circuit,” he told Delaware Business Times.

Tobias noted that appellate courts like the Third Circuit are “critical,” because they are where appeals from the state Supreme Courts end up. 

“That’s really your last stop for 99% of litigants,” he said.

The departure of Montgomery-Reeves, and the recently announced retirement of Justice James Vaughn Jr., will open two seats on the five-member Delaware Supreme Court, giving Gov. John Carney the opportunity to shape a majority of the court. He nominated and won confirmation of Justice Gary Traynor in his first year in office.

Tamika Montgomery Reeves takes the oath of office at Delaware State University during her historic public investiture in 2020. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DSU

The appointment of Montgomery-Reeves as justice was a milestone for Delaware, which had never had a Black Supreme Court justice. She was also the first Black vice chancellor in that court’s history when she was confirmed in 2015.

While she has only served on the Supreme Court for a short time, she joined Chief Justice Collin J. Seitz Jr. on the steering committee of a group that completed a strategic plan to increase diversity in Delaware’s judiciary and legal community.

Montgomery-Reeves was nominated and confirmed in 2015 to serve on the Court of Chancery. Before joining the judiciary, she practiced at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Wilmington, where she focused on corporate governance and business litigation. Montgomery-Reeves also practiced at Weil Gotshal & Manges in New York, where she focused on corporate governance and securities litigation. She graduated from the University of Mississippi and the University of Georgia School of Law, where she continues to serve as a guest professor, according to its website.

The Biden administration has mostly been effective in marshaling its chosen judicial candidates through the Senate confirmation process, winning approvals for the most lower court judges in the first year of a presidency since the Kennedy administration. That includes former Delaware U.S. District Judge Leonard Stark, who was confirmed by the Senate in February to a seat on the patent-focused U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and Gregory B. Williams, a partner at the Wilmington office of national firm Fox Rothschild LLP and a former president of the state bar association, who was confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware in July.

Montgomery-Reeves becomes only the second Black woman to serve on the Third Circuit in its history, and is one of 10 Biden-nominated Black women to be confirmed to a federal appellate court – more than his eight predecessors combined, according to Reuters. Tobias noted that the president has placed an importance on judicial diversity at the highest levels, also nominating the first Black woman to the Supreme Court in Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

“He has done amazing things in terms of his success, both in numbers and his promise to diversify their courts in terms of ethnicity and gender. And he’s really on a roll now,” Tobias said. “[Former President Donald] Trump did not even see fit to nominate a single Black person for the appellate courts out of 54 nominations. So it’s just striking. Biden said he was going counter the detrimental effects of what Trump had done, and he’s made good on that.”

Montgomery-Reeves’ move to the Philadelphia-based federal court, however, will assuredly reignite the debate over diversity on Delaware’s courts, as its highest-ranking minority judge is leaving. The First State has recently seen increasing protests on the matter by celebrity civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton, local activists and the Citizens for Judicial Fairness, a group formerly known as Citizens for a Pro-Business Delaware that was formed by employees of TransPerfect, a company with a long, bitter history in the Chancery system.

Since backing Montgomery-Reeves to the high court, Carney has not nominated a minority candidate to either the Supreme Court or Court of Chancery despite the increasing criticism. Delaware utilizes a Judicial Nominating Commission composed of lawyers and laypeople who recommend nominees to the governor for state judgeships.

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