July 29, 2011
Edward M. McNally
Delaware Business Court Insider

There is trouble in Delaware. For over 40 years the esteemed Delaware Court of Chancery has been almost always headed by a Chancellor named “William.” From William Duffy, to William Marvel to William Quillen to William Allen and last in the line, William Chandler, the Court has been well served by its Williams. Now that Leo Strine is about to become the rare Chancellor not named William, concern abounds over his name. Of course, a past great Chancellor was named Grover, as in Grover Brown, but that was the exception that proves the rule. Apart from their common name, what made all these Williams special? That answer can be seen in looking at the characteristics of the last William, Chancellor Chandler who has just retired.

First of all, William Chandler was an honest man in an age when intellectual honesty is not common. By honesty, of course, I do not refer to financial integrity. All Delaware judges have had that in recent memory. Instead, honesty means following binding precedent even when you think it is wrong. Here, Chancellor Chandler always said what he thought and never hid his reasoning, but followed precedent even if he disagreed with the Delaware Supreme Court.

A great judge has intelligence. The scholarship of so many Chandler opinions is astonishing for a busy judge. Just look at the hundreds of footnotes in his recent Air Products decision issued soon after the last hearing and you must wonder how did he find the time. Intellectual ability made the difference. Past Chancellors such as William Allen have lasting reputations for their scholarship. So too will this Chancellor Chandler.

A great judge has energy. Being a judge requires paying attention to witnesses and lawyers droning on and on and then writing an opinion that decides a complicated case. That takes stamina. Chancellor Chandler’s frequent jogging kept him in shape and that was reflected in the energy he brought to the job.

A great judge is a good administrator. The Court of Chancery under this Chancellor was free from internal squabbling, had a hard working staff of reporters and administrators and consistently provided great service. While that is a tribute to that staff, it also reflects well on the person in charge – the Chancellor. This aspect of the job is often overlooked because it is not done in public or with great fanfare. Yet, it is vital to an effective court. Moreover, Chancellor Chandler has a great interest in technology. That has led the Court to be up-to-date not just with electronic fillings but with other innovations such as easy rapid transcription of hearings.

A great judge has patience. Chancellor Chandler is among the most patient of human beings. He was patient with wandering lawyers, pro se litigants, impossible deadlines and constant demands on his time with rarely a complaint. This characteristic is much more appreciated than some judges might think. Chancellor Duffy was a small man in stature, but had total command of the Courtroom through his calm, patient demeanor. Not for him was the sarcastic remark to put down the wrongheaded lawyer. Chancellor Duffy instead would gently show the errors of that lawyer’s position by his patient explanations. That is not easy and is often not acknowledged, but is important. Chancellor Chandler had a similar quiet but effective command of his courtroom.

A great judge is a good listener. This is more than just being patient. It is the knack of making the person talking to you feel that you are hearing and considering every word they say. Chancellor Chandler was the best listener I have ever seen. He made you feel that you were the only one in the room. On occasion at some Bar or judicial event, the Chancellor would need to participate in a conference call. When he did, the telephone literally seemed to be part of his anatomy and even if a streaker ran by he would not blink so intent was his concentration.

A great judge is a faithful public servant. The Court of Chancery did not need to volunteer to hold mediations and now arbitrations of business disputes in addition to its regular, full docket. But to keep Delaware as a leader in resolving business disputes, this Chancellor was an early advocate of these additional services to business litigants. That is a burden that he and the Court took on and that is all done in private without any public appreciation for that extra effort. That is real public service.

Finally, a great judge enjoys his job. The constant clamor of litigants and the demands of always being “fair” can make any judge irritable. That never happened with Chancellor Chandler. Sure he always ruled his courtroom and could be stern when that was needed. But day in and day out he was good to be with even in the toughest trial. Just the joy he took in the new courthouse in Georgetown was a pleasure to see, including giving tours of that courthouse when it first opened.

So what about the nominee to be Chancellor? Even though he is named “Leo” he is well-suited for this job as Chancellor. While not as patient as Chancellor Chandler (who is anyway?), Chancellor Strine has the intellectual honesty, intelligence, energy, administrative skills, and commitment to public service of the Williams who preceded him. The Delaware Bar expects that he will fulfill his promise.