Chief Justice Myron T. Steele
Supreme Court Chief Justice Myron T. Steele will retire on Nov. 30, 2013 after serving 25 years on the Delaware bench. Appointed Chief Justice in 2004, he joined the Supreme Court as a Justice in 2000 and previously served on both the Superior Court and the Court of Chancery. Most recently, the Chief Justice completed a term as President of the Conference of Chief Justices and Chairman of the Board of Directors for the National Center for State Courts in August 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia and received both his law degree and his masters of law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. His legal career has spanned more than four decades, including eighteen years in private litigation practice prior to taking the bench. He has presided over major corporate litigation, and limited liability companies and limited partner governance disputes, and frequently writes on issues of corporate document interpretation and corporate governance. He has published over 400 opinions resolving disputes among members of limited liability companies and limited partnerships, and between shareholders and management of both publicly traded and close corporations.
Following his penchant for teaching, the Chief Justice is an Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the University of Virginia School of Law and the Pepperdine University School of Law. He has received professional accolades throughout his career and his reputation extends well beyond state and national borders. The Directorship Magazine consistently ranks Chief Justice Steele as one of the 100 most influential people in corporate governance in the United States. He has been continually placed on Lawdragon’s list of “Leading Lawyers in America” and “Top Judges in America.”
Chief Justice Steele was awarded the 2012 Judicial Achievement Award by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform which recognized his leadership and the “efficiencies he has instilled” as Chief Justice, as well as his role in solidifying the Delaware Supreme Court’s “reputation as the exemplar for direction and sound management.” In accepting the award, the Chief Justice remarked, “It is very generous of you to personalize this Judicial Achievement Award, but please allow me to accept it on behalf of all the women and men in the Delaware Judicial Branch, who work with limited resources and take enormous pride in their work product.”
The Administrative Office of the Courts recently sat down with Chief Justice Steele to reflect on his time as Chief Justice and his thoughts on the future.
(AOC): You served as the Chief Justice during some particularly difficult times. What was the most difficult situation that you faced?
(CJ): There were two events that come to mind. The first would be the shooting at the New Castle County Courthouse and the impact on employees. One doesn't often think about something like that happening, but it did. The tragic event will have a rippling effect for years to come. Employees who once thought they were safe coming to work now doubt their own security and that of their loved ones. We must continue to do everything within our power to make sure that an event like this does not happen again in the Delaware Courts, without sacrificing access to justice.
The second most difficult situation would be the emasculation of the Delaware Compensation Commission. That Commission’s failure to provide an objective assessment of public officers’ compensation in the last eight years represents a reneging on the promise to Delaware judges, when that system was created, that there would be a fair review of judicial compensation every four years. The effective loss of the Commission as a viable vehicle to address judicial pay inadequacies, combined with the minimal state employee pay increases over the last ten years, have meant that the compensation rates paid to judges and Judicial Branch employees have fallen further and further behind inflation and benefit cost increases. I regret that the limitations placed on my position in our current system and, effectively, on the operation of the Judicial Branch as a separate, co-equal branch of government, prevented me from addressing these rising pay inadequacies.
(AOC): What do you feel have been some of your most important accomplishments and decisions as Chief Justice?
(CJ): I am very pleased that we continue to be viewed as the nation’s top court system. I am not sure that people realize the pressure not to break that string. I am also extremely proud of my colleagues’ decision during the state’s fiscal crisis in FY 2010 to voluntarily share in the judicial branch employees’ pain of the 2 ½% salary reduction, even though they were not legally obligated to do so. In addition, although it took a few years, I believe that the decision to faithfully follow the empirical formula for determining when to request additional judicial positions was, ultimately, key to our success in obtaining two new, and much needed, judgeships in the Superior Court.
(AOC): Do you have any frustrations about goals that you were unable to complete?
(CJ): Yes. The Judicial Branch needs its own personnel system. As a separate and equal branch of government, it only makes sense that we would have a separate system since the Judicial Branch, itself, is in the best position to understand what we do, how we do it, and what we need to accomplish our mission.
(AOC): What surprised you the most in your role as Chief Justice?
Chief Justice Steele is a wonderful mentor and teacher to all of his clerks, which have been named his “Knuckleheads.” With the Chief Justice’s guidance, my writing skills improved immensely during my clerkship. His advice continues to carry with me today as I prepare briefs and motions in my law practice. The Chief Justice encourages his clerks to do everything they can to get the most out of the clerkship, and he does everything he can to make that happen. Before and after every oral argument he took the time to meet with the clerks to talk about the legal arguments. He treats the clerks as his colleagues, which is something that was much appreciated. He told us many times that he values the different perspectives and fresh ideas of his clerks, and he instilled in us that everyone deserves an even playing field. I have so many fond memories of my clerkship, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to clerk for Chief Justice Steele. Not only was it a fabulous clerkship experience, the relationship with the Chief Justice and his Knuckleheads extends well beyond the year of clerking. The Chief Justice treats his Knuckleheads like family. I have truly enjoyed being friends with so many of the Knuckleheads, and I always look forward to our gatherings with the Chief Justice.
Allyson Britton DiRocco, Esq.
Attorney at Morris James LLP
(CJ): I have been pleasantly surprised by how easy it turned out to be to work with my colleagues on the Court. I hear from other jurisdictions dreadful stories about judges not getting along. We have a genuine respect for one another. It has been a pleasure to work alongside these very talented men and women.
(AOC): What do you perceive as being the greatest issues facing the judiciary and the justice system generally?
(CJ): It continues to be a challenge to secure sufficient resources to fairly compensate all employees and to keep up to date with technology and infrastructure needs. Despite the many innovations and court efficiencies which the Courts have instituted, the widening chasm between court resources and workload demands has impacted the Courts’ ability to efficiently provide constitutionally-mandated services. There is a critical need to ensure that courthouses are both accessible and secure. That means looking at much needed updates to (or replacement of) courthouse facilities such as Family Court in Kent and Sussex Counties.
(AOC): Do you have any words of caution/encouragement for the Judicial Branch as a whole going forward?
(CJ): I hope that people will look on the new Chief Justice as a leader of a team of responsible, professional, dedicated employees and that they will allow him or her to build consensus on resource needs, and make changes in court processes as the future demands. As for caution, although it is likely unnecessary to mention, we need to always remember that the Judicial Branch’s independence is the foundation of our success. We cannot allow ourselves to be governed by the other branches of government.
(AOC): What changes (if any) have you observed in the way law is practiced in Delaware?
(CJ): The Bar is radically more diverse with many more views and new ideas based on cultural/historical backgrounds. Also, there has been a breakdown of firm loyalty, both associates to partners and vice versa. I am amazed at how frequently lawyers change firms, which contrasts with my experience of 18 years with one firm. The economic pressures on law firms and partners affect training of associates and billing practices. These economic demands would appear to be much more pressurized than they used to be and, no doubt, have changed the way law is practiced.
(AOC): What do you think have been the qualities that have made you such an effective leader?
(CJ): Over the years, I have come to recognize that I am but one voice. There is enormous talent in the Judicial Branch at every level and I have listened to and learned from all of them. I did not individually set our mission. We came together to speak with one voice.
(AOC): What advice would you give to a new Delaware attorney?
(CJ): It would be the same advice that I give to my laws clerks – find a niche that a firm needs to have filled and work hard to be irreplaceable.
(AOC): Do you have any parting thoughts for Judicial Branch employees?
(CJ): I believe the General Assembly is going to work towards a pay raise at the end of this next legislative session. There is hope for better working conditions and pay. Do not be discouraged. Without a doubt, the exceptional efforts and commitment of the judges and Judicial Branch employees are the reason for the Delaware Judiciary’s reputation and achievements. I will continue to marvel at the Judicial Branch employees’ remarkable resilience and dedication in making sure that the job "gets done," while confronting exponentially increasing workloads and declining resources.
(AOC): What will you look forward to most as you leave the bench?
(CJ): I am looking forward to being out of the public eye and the ability to manage my personal schedule better than I have for the past 9 ½ years.
We are very thankful for Chief Justice Steele’s inspirational leadership and his strong and thoughtful guidance throughout his tenure as Chief Justice, particularly during the difficult times resulting from the New Castle County Courthouse shooting and the State’s fiscal challenges in recent years. The benefits we have gained through his efforts and accomplishments will be felt for many years to come. Thank you, Chief Justice Steele!