Trailblazing justice, 38, reflects on joining Delaware’s highest court

Justice Tamika Montgomery-Reeves mentioned her pride at being appointed to the court several times, something she also pointed to during her confirmation hearing in November. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

DOVER — A young Tamika Montgomery-Reeves couldn’t have predicted the path she would take to becoming a judge. But today, she is the newest member of the state’s highest court, as well as the first black justice in the body’s history.

It’s all part of a very rapid rise for the 38-year-old, who is believed to be the youngest member of the Supreme Court since it was officially established in 1951.

A native of Mississippi who attended law school in Georgia and now lives in Wilmington, she came to the First State to clerk for William B. Chandler III, the highly respected head of the hugely important Court of Chancery. Like so many others, the now Justice Montgomery-Reeves had a different career path in mind for part of her time in college, with an initial interest in criminal justice superseded by a passion for corporate law after learning more about the latter.

She started her career in New York working long nights on cases stemming from the financial crisis of 2007-2008, as she recalled earlier this week. From there, she jumped to the Wilmington law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

In 2015, her rapid rise began, with then Gov. Jack Markell picking her to fill a vacant seat on the Court of Chancery — the same place that influenced her so much.

“That changed my life,” Justice Montgomery-Reeves said of her clerkship under Chancellor Chandler.

While many people think of the court as handling only stodgy, byzantine matters relating to business law, it actually deals with all sorts of issues centered around equity. During her time on the court, the justice took cases on wills and property disputes, among other subjects, areas she found fascinating.

The Court of Chancery, for instance, ruled against school segregation in a case that was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and combined with the groundbreaking 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, as Justice Montgomery-Reeves proudly noted.

She was the first black Delawarean and second woman to join that court.

Justice Montgomery-Reeves is proud of her history-making status, saying the judiciary should better reflect the citizenry of Delaware, something accomplished through diversity. That will have no impact on her rulings, she noted, speaking of the respect she has for the courts and their role in society.

“It is an important day to the people who are making their way through and appearing in court,” Justice Montgomery-Reeves said.

Asked if she had any specific goals she hoped to accomplish during her time as a justice, she quickly responded she has no preconceived notions and aims only to fairly interpret and rule on the law.

Justice Montgomery-Reeves mentioned her pride at being appointed to the court several times, something she also pointed to during her confirmation hearing in November.

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

Senators unanimously confirmed her a few weeks after she was chosen by Gov. John Carney. Although there was pressure on the governor from some lawmakers and civil rights leaders to appoint a person of color to the bench, the governor said in November the newest justice was chosen for her qualifications, not her race, and praised her “experience and sense of justice.”

In a statement after the confirmation, the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus touted the selection for several reasons.

“Today’s confirmation vote is an important and long-overdue step forward for the First State. This vote sends a clear message about the kind of future we are building in Delaware.

“Justice Tamika Montgomery-Reeves is uniquely qualified to fill the role of Supreme Court Justice. We are confident that her vast experience and knowledge of the law will be a benefit to all people seeking justice in this state.

“Importantly, today’s confirmation also signals to countless young people in communities from Claymont to Delmar that the promise of equal opportunity is supported by the lived stories of real people and not just political rhetoric — a fact that will no doubt lead even more bright young people to the top of our judiciary.

“Justice Montgomery-Reeves is the Thurgood Marshall of our generation and takes her place etched in the history of Delaware.”

Her formal investiture will take place Friday.

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