Senate confirms chief justice and first black justice

Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. was appoint chief justice of the Supreme Court of Delaware by the Senate in a special session on Thursday. Justice Seitz will be sworn in today in a private ceremony. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

DOVER — The Senate on Thursday confirmed two new members of the Supreme Court, including the 10th chief justice and first black judge in the court’s 68 years.

Senators unanimously approved the nominations of current Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. to head the five-member court and Vice Chancellor Tamika Montgomery-Reeves to fill his seat as an associate justice.

“It means everything to me personally, and people have asked me how I feel about it, and I say, ‘Well, I know my father’s looking down at me from heaven and I know he’d be proud,’” Justice Seitz, whose father was a state and federal judge, told reporters.

The Delaware Senate appointed Tamika Montgomery-Reeves as an associate justice to serve on the five-member Supreme Court. She will be the first black judge in the Supreme Court’s 68 years. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

While the General Assembly does not regularly meet during the second half of the year, a special session had been pending since former Chief Justice Leo Strine announced in July he planned to step down from the bench. He officially retired last week, creating a vacancy that had to be filled before lawmakers return in January.

Thursday, senators held a special session that lasted about two hours, beginning with a Senate Executive Committee hearing and ending with votes on the nominees by the full chamber. Members of the committee asked a few questions of Justice Seitz and Vice Chancellor Montgomery-Reeves, praising both as highly qualified and well-respected.

“Delaware’s judiciary is one of the most highly regarded institutions in the world and it has earned that reputation by cultivating an elite pool of lawyers, judges and experts,” Senate Pro Tempore David McBride, D-New Castle, said in a statement. “As Senators, we play a small but important role in sustaining that level of excellence by confirming judicial nominees and I can say with confidence that today’s nominees are some of the best we have ever considered. I was supremely impressed by their experience, their commitment to the law and justice in this state, and their testimony in the Senate chamber today.”

Justice Seitz, who is set to be sworn in today in a private ceremony, identified as one of his main priorities getting new Family Court facilities built in Kent and Sussex counties. Mr. Strine, his predecessor as the judiciary’s top official, had pushed for new courthouses since he assumed the role of chief justice in 2014.

While Mr. Strine, who spent 16 years on the Court of Chancery before being named to the Supreme Court, did not identify a specific reason for his decision to step down, he is expected to enter private practice.

Because of his retirement, which took effect a week earlier, Justice Karen Valihura temporarily served as acting chief justice. She is the first woman in Delaware’s history to lead the top court.

Gov. John Carney announced the selections of Justice Seitz and Vice Chancellor Montgomery-Reeves, his second and third picks for Delaware’s top court in his nearly three years at the helm of state government, last month. In a statement Thursday, he described the new chief justice as “one of Delaware’s finest legal minds” and touted Vice Chancellor Montgomery-Reeves’ “experience and sense of justice.”

Vice Chancellor Montgomery-Reeves made history in 2015 when she was the first black Delawarean named to the Court of Chancery. It is believed the 38-year-old will become the youngest member of the Supreme Court since it was officially established in 1951.

“I am blessed beyond measure, I really am,” she told the Executive Committee.

While there was pressure on the governor from some lawmakers and civil rights leaders to appoint a person of color to the bench, Gov. Carney said Thursday Vice Chancellor Montgomery-Reeves was chosen for her qualifications, not her race.

Her selection means Gov. Carney will have to pick another attorney to join the prestigious Court of Chancery, which handles various issues relating to business law, although that choice is not expected to occur until January.

A graduate of the University of Mississippi and University of Georgia School of Law, Vice Chancellor Montgomery-Reeves worked in private practice handling corporate law before being named to the Court of Chancery.

Justice Seitz, a native of Delaware, graduated from the University of Delaware and Villanova University School of Law. His father, Collins J. Seitz, presided over a case that was combined with several others in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, a federal ruling that eventually ended school segregation.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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