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Senate confirms Supreme Court picks despite opposition

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John Carney Delaware Supreme Court Justice Abigail LeGrow N. Christopher Griffiths

Gov. John Carney, center, poses with new Delaware Supreme Court Justices Abigail LeGrow and N. Christopher Griffiths. | PHOTO COURTESY OF THE GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

DOVER – The State Senate confirmed Superior Court Judge Abigail LeGrow and Connolly Gallagher partner N. Christopher “Chris” Griffiths to fill two open seats on the Delaware Supreme Court on Wednesday evening, but not without a rare showing of opposition by Republicans.

Unlike their federal counterparts, confirmation hearings in the State Senate rarely feature controversy and are usually fairly quick, with nominees having already met with senators in the preceding days.

On Wednesday, however, the hearing lasted more than an hour and a half as Republicans questioned both nominees over the lack of representation of Kent County on the high court and Griffiths’ recent alcohol-related driving arrest.

Ultimately, Senate Democrats approved both nominees with unanimous support while Republicans chose to either oppose or not vote on each. LeGrow received a vote of 15-3-3 while Griffiths was 15-4-2, confirming each to 12-year terms on the bench.

For the first time in the more than 70-year history of the Delaware Supreme Court, no justice will reside in Kent County. Justice James T. Vaughn Jr., who stepped down with LeGrow’s confirmation, was the last to reside in Delaware’s smallest county.

Republicans, and especially those from Kent County, decried the breaking of an unwritten precedent that all three counties be represented on the state Supreme Court, with several saying they have fielded calls from county lawyers upset at Gov. John Carney’s choice to nominate two New Castle County residents.

Notably, the governor has also been criticized by a vocal campaign on the left to increase diversity on the state’s top benches, and in turn he nominated the court’s first Black man and a second woman, who would be the only justice with prior trial judge experience.

Before sitting out the votes, State Sen. Eric Buckson (R-Dover) said that Carney “threw us under the bus” with his choices.

Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker (R-Ocean View) said he could only think of one other judge in his 11 years of service that he did not support, but he said he couldn’t support not having Kent represented on the court.

Senate Minority Whip Brian Pettyjohn (R-Georgetown) said that “for a downstate legislator, it’s insulting.”

“I don’t think there will ever be a time that there’s not a New Castle County person on the Supreme Court, but we’re going to be in a time now where there’s no Kent County individual on the Supreme Court,” he added, noting that at least three Kent lawyers were considered by the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission.

During their confirmation hearing with the Senate Executive Committee, Griffiths said that he could understand the frustrations of Kent County residents, but also that others in the state also lack representation on the court. That includes Black residents, who make up nearly a quarter of the state, and Griffiths is the first Black man ever confirmed to the state Supreme Court.

“I think all diversity has merit, and you have to examine it and see where we are at this place in time … and what’s best for our state,” he said. “I’m not from Kent County but … I think we all want what’s best, and I want that too. I don’t believe the fact that I’m not from Kent County is a disqualifying factor.”

LeGrow, who moved to Delaware in 2005 with her family to practice law, said that her track record would have to speak for itself.

“What I hope my body of work and the last several years of my career have demonstrated is that even though I was not born here, and I was not raised here, I am committed to serving the state and really serving all three counties of the state,” she said.

Notably, House Bill 135, which would require at least one justice of the Delaware Supreme Court reside in Kent County, one in Sussex County and two in New Castle County, has already been unanimously approved by the state House of Representatives. The State Senate has not yet taken action on the bill though, and therefore didn’t affect LeGrow and Griffiths.

Several senators also expressed concern about Griffiths’ January arrest in Sussex County for suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. He ultimately pleaded guilty to alcohol-related reckless driving, a misdemeanor, receiving a fine and points on his license. He is currently completing a state-ordered education class.

“Even though it’s a simple traffic ticket at this point in time, the severity of my actions is not lost on me, and I don’t try to underscore it,” he said. “It has humbled me in a way that is hard to describe. And at the very least it’s given me empathy to look at those that may come before the court and understand what it’s like to be in trouble and being scared about what’s going to happen to you next. I think those are all good characteristics of judges.”

Several senators noted that other nominees have had blemishes on their records when approved by the chamber, but others wished there had been more time between Griffiths’ incident and his nomination.

LeGrow and Griffiths succeed Vaughn and former Supreme Court Justice Tamika Montgomery-Reeves, the barrier-breaking first Black state justice who was recently appointed to the federal circuit court.

Appointed in 2016 by then-Gov. Jack Markell, LeGrow serves as a judge of the Superior Court of the State of Delaware. Prior to joining the judiciary, LeGrow was appointed as a master in chancery on the Delaware Court of Chancery by then-Chancellor Leo E. Strine Jr.  She received her law degree from the Pennsylvania State University Dickinson School of Law and her bachelor’s degree in political science from Susquehanna University.

While in law school, LeGrow was an editor of the Penn State Law Review and a recipient of the Walter Harrison Hitchler Award and the American Bankruptcy Law Journal Prize. Upon graduation, she clerked at the Delaware Supreme Court and later practiced with Potter Anderson & Corroon LLP.

Meanwhile, Griffiths is a partner at Wilmington-based law firm Connolly Gallagher, where he focuses on administrative and government law; corporate and commercial litigation; bankruptcy law; and general litigation. He serves as city solicitor to the towns of New Castle, Newport and Townsend – roles he would have to leave upon joining the Supreme Court.

Before entering private practice, Griffiths served as a wealth manager for the Wilmington Trust Company and the Vanguard Group. He received his law degree from Villanova University School of Law, and he is a graduate of the University of Delaware and Salesianum High School.

The vacancies and the searches for replacements are of interest to the corporate class and state leadership alike.

Over 1 million businesses, including half of all publicly traded companies and more than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies, are incorporated in Delaware due to its business-focused equity court, the Court of Chancery, where specialized judges rather than juries rule on corporate disputes. The state Supreme Court hears all appeals from the Court of Chancery and has long set precedent in the world of corporate governance.

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