WILMINGTON – Gov. John Carney’s nomination of Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. to lead the Delaware Supreme Court, and Vice Chancellor Tamika Montgomery-Reeves to back-fill Seitz’s seat on the bench is drawing praise from their peers and those closely watching the courts.
The judicial moves, set off by the unexpected resignation of Chief Justice Leo Strine Jr. effective at the end of October, led to a search that was of high interest for the corporate class. 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.
The departure of Strine, an often-outspoken jurist whose courtroom questioning, written opinions and academic essays have raised eyebrows over the years and even led to an admonishment from the Delaware Supreme Court in 2012, meant corporate litigators were waiting to see whose viewpoint would head the court.
In separate statements, both Seitz and Montgomery-Reeves told the Delaware Business Times that they were “honored” by the governor’s selection but declined further comment until the Delaware Senate considers their appointments Nov. 7 in a confirmation hearing in Dover.
What’s clear is that both candidates have already gotten a stamp of approval from the departing chief justice.
Noting that Carney had a number of excellent candidates from whom to choose, Strine said in a statement to DBT that Seitz “is a wonderful colleague, who cares deeply about making sure that our system of justice is fair to all, and writes with care, common sense, and verve. If the Senate confirms him, our Judiciary will have an excellent leader.”
In Montgomery-Reeves, who Strine has known for years since she clerked for former Chancellor William Chandler III, Strine said that the court will get “an experienced litigator who understands our corporate law and its importance, and knows firsthand the critical role of trial judges in the judicial process, and will serve our state with distinction.”
The appointment of Montgomery-Reeves would be a milestone for Delaware, which has never had a black Supreme Court justice. She was the first black Court of Chancery judge in that court’s history when she was confirmed in November 2015.
State Sen. Darius Brown (D-Wilmington), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, had called upon Carney earlier this year to consider diversity in his selection to replace Strine on the state’s top court. After the announcement of the governor’s picks, Brown applauded Carney’s selections calling them “some of the best our state has to offer.”
“I look forward to the special session early next month and feel confident that our Supreme Court will continue to set the standard in Delaware and around the nation,” he said in a statement.
While their appointments are not yet finalized – although they are expected to proceed considering both have already been confirmed by the Senate in their prior appointments and the state Constitution requires that the seats be filled by Democrats, who also control the Senate – their announcements have also earned praise in the legal and business worlds.
Charles Elson, director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, called the nominees “excellent choices,” adding that “they’re both thoughtful, respected and smart.”
Justice Seitz has “great judicial temperament,” and Elson expected that he will work in a “traditional way” to regulate corporate governance in the state, Elson said.
At times, Strine had raised questions about the need to balance shareholder and stakeholder interests in the corporate world. While CEOs and presidents around the nation have increasingly been taking sides on that debate amongst the growth of social, environmental and economic issues impacting brands, it was curious for a leading member of the bench in a typically staid legal environment to voice such thoughts.
Elson said that he believed that “both the corporate and investor classes will be happy with the governor’s selections.”
As to Montgomery-Reeves, who hasn’t yet served on the high court, Elson said, “I think she’s become highly versed in corporate litigation in her time in Chancery Court, and she will easily make the jump to the Supreme Court.”
Meanwhile, Larry Hamermesh, emeritus professor of corporate law at Widener University Delaware Law School, said the nominations came with a “distinct lack of surprise.”
“I was in a room with a group of lawyers and investors in New York when the announcement came out and the feeling was, ‘These names were expected,’” he said.
Hamermesh called the nomination of Seitz, whose late father Collins J. Seitz Sr. is held in high regard for his Chancery Court opinion supporting Delaware’s desegregation of schools, for the court’s top seat a “perfectly respectable pick.”
“I find him judicious, congenial and ingratiating,” he said. “I’m not sure the shoes to be filled are any bigger than his feet.”
Hamermesh said that he expected Carney’s selections would ease any fears about a change in direction for Delaware’s legal framework so revered by corporations.
“I don’t expect any radical change in direction, and I think this set of justices would be more inclined to consolidate and refine rather than try to revolutionize the doctrine set out in state courts,” he said.
Hamermesh noted that if Montgomery-Reeves is appointed, it would create yet another vacancy on the Court of Chancery, which would be watched closely by the corporate class.
“The hits keep coming,” he said.