Legal Levity

Chancery judges lighten the heaviness of their disputes.

Even during a deadly serious derivative-suit debate, humor seems to find a place in the courtroom of Delaware Vice Chancellor Leo Strine.

His love for one-liners — even lame ones — can make hearings in his 12th-floor court in downtown Wilmington resemble open-mike night at the Improv. To explain how elusive one AIG lawyer’s argument seems at a recent hearing, the judge says, “It might be beyond my ken — or my Barbie, because I don’t want to be gender-insensitive.” The groans are muted. Lawyers join in, too, debating at one point the lyrical talents of Jimmy Buffett versus Randy Newman, a favorite of the judge.

The vice chancellor, who is slight of frame, also jests self-deprecatingly about his appearance behind the huge bench, where every few seconds his spring-action chair makes him bounce almost out of sight.

“Humor should never belittle a party, but it is nice to lighten things up, ease tension, and make the process a bit more human,” says Strine. “Folks work real hard to present cases in our court. I take their cases very seriously.”

While Vanity Fair didn’t miss the opportunity to poke fun in its coverage of the Walt Disney Co. trial last year, nary a word is said in Chancellor William Chandler’s Georgetown courtroom about the name of his spit-and-polished security officer: Rocky Justice. The chancellor’s own sense of humor is too refined for that. But his wry wit leaves smiles in his courtroom as well. Of an early draft of a News Corp. press release describing a change in its poison-pill policy, he notes that “the best thing that can be said about it is that it is redundant.” He refers to one “mind-numbingly, paralysis-inducing paragraph that spans two pages” as he orders the company to rewrite it. “I get inundated — no, inundated is too strong — I get letters from shareholders who plead and beg me for clear language,” he says.

Even the court Website
gets into the act. Although the state’s system prides itself on prompt resolution of disputes, the Court of Chancery history section of the site notes the case of the Trans World Airlines Inc. v. Summa Corp. litigation that was finally resolved in 1988 after nearly a quarter-century of argument. At the time, the Delaware Supreme Court noted that the case “almost seemed reminiscent of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the interminable litigation described in Dickens’ Bleak House.”

“Humor is personal to the judge, though I have found that good humor and good judging seem to go together,” says University of Delaware Professor Charles Elson, an expert on the Chancery Court. He notes that two judges on the Delaware Supreme Court, Chief Justice Myron Steele and Justice Jack Jacobs, are Chancery alumni both noted for their senses of humor.

Making jokes certainly isn’t the main tool for Chandler and Strine, both of whom are business-law experts known for their carefully reasoned, well crafted opinions.

Before being named to his 12-year term as one of four vice chancellors in Delaware’s merit-based bipartisan system, Republican Chandler served as a corporate lawyer, and was legal counsel to former Governor Pierre S. duPont. When offered a federal judgeship shortly after his Chancery appointment, the University of Delaware graduate withdrew his name so he could remain on the Chancery Court. His law degrees are from the University of South Carolina and Yale Law School. Strine, a Democrat who joined the court in 1998, worked at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, and as counsel to Delaware Governor Thomas R. Carper. The summa cum laude graduate of the University of Delaware received his law degree magna cum laude from Penn, and now also teaches at Harvard University.

“There is a huge difference between arguing a case in Delaware and arguing in New York or another state,” says Stephen Radin of the New York law firm Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP. “Outside Delaware, you’re not going to get a judge who’s an expert in the area. In fact, he may not have had a case like yours in his life. But the chancellors are specialists, and they love their jobs. They are very proud of what Delaware has built up.”

He adds with a laugh: “If I have a strong case, whether for a plaintiff or a defendant, I’d rather be in Delaware. If I have a weak case, I’d rather be in a court outside Delaware. In the Court of Chancery the right result is more likely to be achieved.”

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