Dover upbringing inspired new vice chancellor

DOVER — Delaware’s newest vice chancellor is returning home.

While Dover isn’t quite the quaint small town that Joseph R. Slights III remembers, there’s enough resemblance to make this a special stop.

Sworn in privately on March 28, the 52-year-old Mr. Slights has conducted business in the Court of Chancery since then. He’s operating a mile or less from his boyhood home on State Street, and clearly enjoys the proximity.

Joseph R. Slights III

Joseph R. Slights III

On May 13, an official investiture was held for Mr. Slights at the Kent County Courthouse, with an oath of office and robing conducted by Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr.

“It’s a dream come true for me to be a judge sitting in this courthouse,” he said.

Heck, Mr. Slights and his pals regularly played football on the nearby Green while growing up, and hung out in the area of the courthouse where he now regularly works.

“The courthouse was a fixture there, especially for someone who wants to be a lawyer,” Mr. Slights said. “That got your attention.”

Growing up, Mr. Slights seemed destined to be part of the legal system — he remembers looking up to Judges Max Terry, Bill Bush, Myron Steele and Hank Ridgely as models of how justice should be administered.

On its website, the Court of Chancery is described as being “widely recognized as the nation’s preeminent forum for the determination of disputes involving the internal affairs of the thousands upon thousands of Delaware corporations and other business entities through which a vast amount of the world’s commercial affairs is conducted.

“Its unique competence in and exposure to issues of business law are unmatched.”

‘Immensely talented individual’

Following a nomination by Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, Mr. Slights was unanimously approved by the Delaware State Senate on March 16 for his new role, replacing retiring Vice Chancellor John Noble.

Vice chancellor requirements fit his skills set and career aspirations, Mr. Slights said.

Chancery Court fills a void in determining corporate law matters, estates and trusts, along with real estate issues, commercial and contractual questions, among other needs.

“Delaware is one of the last states that honors the distinction between law and equity,” Mr. Slights said. “It was formed so that businesses if they have a dispute and want to litigate it would feel that Delaware has judges who are more than fairly competent on the civil side.”

After retiring from Superior Court in 2012 after 12 years, Mr. Slights returned to a partnership at Morris James LLP in the business litigation practice and alternative dispute resolution practice.

Gov. Markell’s nomination in February was well received by Mr. Slights, who saw Chancery Court as a logical career move.

“The court expertise needed in corporate law appeals to me,” Mr. Slights said. “There’s a unique opportunity here to dive into those cases in a way that is not available not only anywhere else in the country but anywhere else in the world.”

When announcing the nomination, Gov. Markell described Mr. Slights as “an immensely talented individual, with a strong knowledge of the law and a passion for public service. If confirmed by the Senate, I am confident that his experience, work ethic and judicial temperament will go a long way to ensure that the Delaware Court of Chancery continues its well-deserved reputation as one of the greatest courts in the nation.”

In Chancery Court, Mr. Slights wants to be seen as a judge “who can listen and lets lawyers do their jobs,” he said.

“As a judge I’m not going to put my fingerprints all over the case, but make sure the lawyers present their case while making sure that the matter proceeds in a prompt and efficient way that guides the case to see justice as the final result.”

Previously serving in New Castle County Superior Court as a judge, Mr. Slights was instrumental in creating the Complex Commercial Litigation Division to address corporate issues not applicable to the Court of Chancery.

“It was an effort to provide a forum that concentrated on business cases that didn’t fall into the Court of Chancery’s limitations of jurisdiction,” Mr. Slights said.

Finding his way

A 1981 Dover High graduate who played soccer and was part of some clubs while “trying to find my way,” Mr. Slights pointed to history and civics teacher Jim Oxford as an early mentor to stepping onto his future path.

“He got me pointed in the direction that I was probably headed in any way, which was to study politics and government and prepare myself to some day become a public servant,” Mr. Slights said.

There was no forgetting math teacher Mary Jo Traino either, he said.

“She was extremely patient with me,” Mr. Slights said. “Math was not a strong suit and she was very good at making sure I stayed with the program and ended up getting good grades in two classes.

“I look back fondly at all the extra time she spent with me.”

Two years at Wesley College followed, with two more years at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, that produced a bachelor of science degree in political science. Graduation from Washington and Lee Law School in Lexington, Virginia, followed that.

“I think I always knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to be a lawyer some day,” Mr. Slights said. “The professors I identified with were teaching business classes and that steered me toward corporate law.

“There was never a doubt that I was coming back to Delaware and the professors suggest what a great opportunity there was in the state due to the various ways it conducts business in the legal system.”

Currently living in northern New Castle County, he and his wife Ellen, an assistant United States attorney, are looking for Dover area property to settle in. The empty nest couple has kids in college, one at American University and the other at Boston University.

“After a month of having driven back and forth between Hockessin and Dover I can assure you that it’s been put on the fast track,” Mr. Slights said.

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