Leo Strine stepping down later this year

DOVER — Chief Justice Leo Strine plans to step down from the bench by the end of October, the state announced Monday.

Chief Justice Strine, who has led the judiciary since February 2014, previously spent 16 years on the Court of Chancery, including three years as chancellor.

He is the eighth chief justice in the history of the modern Delaware Supreme Court, which was created in 1951. Of the eight men to have held the judicial branch’s top post, Chief Justice Strine, 55, will have had the second-shortest tenure.

Judges in Delaware are appointed to 12-year terms.

The chief justice revealed the news in a letter sent to Gov. John Carney and then released by the governor’s office Monday. His replacement as chief justice will likely be announced by the governor in a few months, according to a spokesman for Gov. Carney. That individual would then have to be confirmed by the Senate.

The release from the governor’s office did not indicate why exactly the chief justice plans to step down, although he is expected to enter private practice once he officially leaves the bench in September or October. According to the courts, Chief Justice Strine is on vacation and was not available for comment Monday.

The retirement could open up several seats, as the governor may select a member of another court to join the Supreme Court. Five of the seven individuals to lead the existing Supreme Court were already on the court when they were picked as chief justice.

Leo Strine

In his letter, Chief Justice Strine thanked the people of Delaware, including the employees of the judicial branch and former Govs. Tom Carper and Jack Markell. Chief Justice Strine worked as legal counsel for then Gov. Carper in the 1990s prior to being nominated to the bench by him, and it was Gov. Markell who appointed him first as chancellor and then as chief justice.

“I am also grateful, Governor, that I can say to you with confidence that the Judiciary of this state is strong, that we are addressing our challenging and diverse caseloads with diligence, skill and dispatch, and that we are continually looking for new ways to serve the people of Delaware even more effectively,” the chief justice wrote in his letter.

“In particular, the entire Judiciary is deeply invested in improving access to justice for all Delawareans, and doing what we can to improve the fairness of our criminal justice system. As (my wife) Carrie and I move on to a new phase of our lives, I just hope that during my nearly 27 years of service to Delaware, I have contributed in some modest way to making our state stronger and more equitable.”

In a statement, Gov. Carney praised Chief Justice Strine as “one of Delaware’s top legal minds, and a real public servant on behalf of the people of our state.”

At 34, the outgoing chief justice was one of the youngest individuals ever selected for the prestigious Court of Chancery, which routinely handles cases involving Fortune 500 companies. His confirmation was secured only after an unusually bitter fight that saw even fellow Democrats oppose the nomination.

Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat, in a statement referred to replacing Chief Justice Strine as “an impossible task.” In a twist of fate, Sen. McBride was one of the lawmakers who pushed back against the initial nomination in 1998.

“Anyone who spends five minutes with Leo knows he is one of the smartest public servants we have in this state,” he said. “He has rightfully earned a reputation throughout the country as something of a celebrity in the world of corporate law.

“But, here at home, he is just as well-known for being an outspoken champion for reforms to make our criminal justice system fairer and more equitable for people of all races and income levels. That work has had a lasting impact on our state and continues to inform the criminal justice reform efforts currently underway in the General Assembly.”

The chief justice did butt heads with lawmakers and other elected officials on occasion, most notably with a proposal to rewrite the criminal code that faced opposition from the Department of Justice and some legislators.

Thanks to Delaware’s status as a favorite site of incorporation for companies, the head of the Delaware judiciary assumes an outsize role compared to the top judge in many other states. Because of his nearly 16 years on the Court of Chancery, Chief Justice Strine had already built a reputation as a sharp legal mind with an unusual willingness to speak somewhat informally and bluntly when he came to the Supreme Court.

During his tenure, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty, ruling in 2016 the statute was unconstitutional as written. Chief Justice Strine has for years been a firm opponent of capital punishment.

As the leader of the judicial branch, he’s pushed for new Family Court facilities in Kent and Sussex counties and has been outspoken about what he sees as inequities in the criminal justice system. Those views surfaced in his resignation letter, with the chief justice writing a “large gap … still exists between the promise of equal rights and the reality for too many Delawareans, especially African-Americans.”

A graduate of the University of Delaware and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, he worked in private practice before joining then Gov. Carper’s team.

As chief justice, he earned more than all but 18 state employees in 2018, collecting just over $205,000.

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