In Unusual Move, the Delaware Supreme Court Rebukes a Judge

November 9, 2012, 8:29 pm

By PETER LATTMAN

As the chief judge of the Delaware Court of Chancery – the country’s most influential court overseeing business cases – Leo E. Strine Jr. has been called an activist. He has also been called an iconoclast, a genius and a humorist.

But this week, Delaware’s highest court called him out of bounds.

The Delaware Supreme Court issued a stinging rebuke of Judge Strine on Wednesday, criticizing him for what it said was an improper digression in an opinion. Judge Strine’s decision related to a contractual dispute but went off on an 11-page tangent about an obscure issue related to limited liability companies.

“The court’s excursus on this issue strayed beyond the proper purview and function of a judicial opinion,” the Supreme Court wrote, adding, “We remind Delaware judges that the obligation to write judicial opinions on the issues presented is not a license to use those opinions as a platform from which to propagate their individual world views on issues not presented.”

Famous among lawyers for his colorful opinions and courtroom meanderings – which are frequently laced with cultural references, both high and low – Judge Strine has supporters and detractors in the securities class-action bar. The Delaware Court of Chancery exerts a powerful influence on United States business because many large companies are incorporated in Delaware and litigate cases there.

Several lawyers, none of whom would be quoted by name because they all practice before him, said it was only a matter of time before someone sought to rein him in. “I’m only surprised it took this long,” said a corporate litigator from New York who has argued cases in Judge Strine’s courtroom.

The Supreme Court advised Judge Strine that if he wished to “ruminate on what the proper direction of Delaware law should be, there are appropriate platforms, such as law review articles, the classroom, continuing legal education presentations and keynote speeches.”

Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal and judicial ethics at New York University School of Law, said that the court’s admonition was highly unusual.

“You rarely see this type of ruling because judges understand that a judicial opinion has a distinct and narrow function and is not supposed to be a platform for your public agenda or your broader views on the law,” he said.

Reached by e-mail, Judge Strine, whose official title is chancellor of the Delaware Court of Chancery, declined to comment.

The ruling came during a week when Judge Strine’s unique judicial stylings were on prominent display. During a hearing in a lawsuit between the fashion designer Tory Burch and her former husband, Christopher Burch, he described the dispute as a “drunken WASP fest.” At the center of the case is whether Mr. Burch, in starting his own retail stores, C. Wonder, borrowed too heavily from Ms. Burch’s successful chain.

During the hearing, Judge Strine addressed scheduling issues in the case, and said, “I didn’t see any reason to burden anyone’s Hanukkah, New Year’s, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Festivus with this preppy clothing dispute.”

He went on to consider why he gets assigned all the preppy clothing cases, noting that he had recently heard a dispute involving J. Crew. That led to a critique of a certain line of rain boots.

“What’s a duck shoe?” he asked. “You see all these freaks wearing this really ugly – I like L. L. Bean, but those duck shoes are ugly. I mean, there’s no way around it.”

He then said he was puzzled by his son’s recent purchase of a pair of Topsiders. “I’m like, what is this?” Judge Strine asked. “I mean, you know, how do you actually want to wear these things?”

As the hearing continued, Judge Strine suggested that there might be nothing unique about the clothing lines of Mr. Burch and Ms. Burch, who divorced in 2007. He stumped one of the lawyers in the case by quizzing him on Ralph Lauren’s original surname, which is Lifschitz.

After his lengthy sidebar on preppy attire, Judge Strine said he was deep in “an autumnal Cheever phase,” referring to the novelist and short story writer. He then encouraged the lawyers to read Cheever’s works, go see the Broadway revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and watch “Mad Men.”

“We’ll be all geared up and in the mood for this sort of drunken WASP fest,” Judge Strine said, and then proceeded to ask about the litigants’ religion. “Are the Burches WASPs?” he asked.

Robert Isen, the chief legal officer at Tory Burch, hesitated before responding, “Tory Burch is Jewish and Chris is not Jewish.”

The answer did not entirely satisfy Judge Strine. “But not Jewish doesn’t make you a WASP, because it could make you an equally excluded faith like Catholic, right?” he asked. “I mean, that’s not a WASP. You know, a WASP is a WASP.”

Mr. Gillers of N.Y.U. Law said that discussing religion in such a manner was conduct unbecoming of a judge. Even if it is done lightheartedly, he said, it could compromise the public’s confidence in the impartiality and integrity of the judiciary.

“Asking about religion, in my mind, is way off base,” Mr. Gillers said. “It’s certainly not legally relevant, and a judge certainly wouldn’t do that with race or sexual orientation.”

Judge Strine began his career in the early 1990s as a lawyer in the Wilmington, Del., office of the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. He then joined the staff of the Delaware governor Thomas R. Carper, who is now a senator. Judge Strine, who is 48, was named to the Court of Chancery at 34. Many of his opinions are considered among the most influential rulings in corporate law.

A lawyer based in Wilmington, Del., who described himself as a supporter of Judge Strine, said that behind this week’s Supreme Court ruling was a simmering tension between Myron Steele, the chief justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, and Judge Strine. That conflict appears to have its roots in a disagreement over an arcane subject: the default fiduciary duties of a limited liability company.

This lawyer said that he found Judge Strine’s rapier wit and off-topic asides to be a breath of fresh air in a judiciary that too often can be painfully dull.

“He’s a brilliant dude,” he said. “It’s just Leo being Leo.”

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