Chancery Court in Delaware gets a bigger home

$132.4 million building is state's largest single public project

March 11, 2001|By Maureen Milford | Maureen Milford,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WILMINGTON, Del. - When corporate raider T. Boone Pickens made a hostile bid for Newmont Mining Corp. during the takeover frenzy of the late 1980s, the battle ended up in Delaware's Dickensian-sounding Court of Chancery.

But the day the Texas deal maker showed up for a hearing, the proceedings had to be moved to a courtroom in the federal building. Chancery - the most important state court in the country when it comes to corporate law - could not fit all the arbitrageurs, members of the news media and spectators into one of its cozy courtrooms in the 1916 Daniel L. Herrmann Courthouse on Rodney Square.

More recently, in a trade secrets case involving Merck & Co. and SmithKline Beecham PLC, lawyers brought so much technology into the courtroom that the building's electrical systems was overtaxed and a brownout ensued.

Despite its power to determine the outcome of multibillion-dollar business matters, Chancery Court has had to make do for decades.

Now work is progressing on a $132.4 million courthouse at Fourth and King streets in which Chancery Court will have the top billing, with state-of-the-art courtrooms on the highest floor.

The 570,000-square-foot building on 5.5 acres is the largest single public-building project in Delaware's history, illustrating how much the state champions its court system, particularly the specialized business court.

A court of equity

Chancery Court, an unusual entity founded as a court of equity as opposed to a court of law, traces its heritage to medieval England. The court is one reason Delaware is the paper home to nearly half of the Fortune 500 companies. And corporations chartered in Delaware pay franchise taxes, which represent 22 percent of the state's operating budget, according to Sabrina D. Hill, assistant secretary of state.

"We want to have an adequate and safe courthouse for our residents, but also we recognize the need for dignified surroundings for people who come from all over the world to litigate in our Court of Chancery," said Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman E. Veasey.

The land was cleared more than 30 years ago as part of urban renewal efforts, and the steel framing of the 12-story building has altered the skyline in the southern end of the city's central business district.

The architecture of the New Castle County Courthouse by HLM Design of Orlando, Fla., will lack the massive fluted columns and granite facade of the 177,600-square-foot Herrmann building, designed by Palmer & Hornbostel of New York. Instead, the brick, glass and aluminum-panel courthouse promises to deliver the latest in technology and security.

"The new building will give us large courtrooms - which we desperately need - but the technology will be something that will assist the court in maintaining its reputation for promptness," said Chancellor William B. Chandler III, the court's chief judge.

Technologies include electronic filing, real-time transcription, digital voice recording, computer animation and video teleconferencing.

Besides Chancery, the building will house three other trial courts - Family Court, Court of Common Pleas and Superior Court - when it opens in September 2002. The Supreme Court is in Dover, the state capital.

Chancery Court has played a large role in establishing the national reputation of Delaware's court system, the chief justice of the United States, William H. Rehnquist, said in 1992 at the time of the court's 200th anniversary.

High judicial praise

The court is so highly specialized and its decisions so scholarly that corporations' legal counsels refer to Delaware rulings to order their companies' actions to avoid litigation.

"This recognition confers on the Court in Chancery one of the highest forms of praise a judiciary can receive," Rehnquist said.

Today, approximately 70 percent of all the filings relate to corporate law and other alternative business entities, like limited liability companies.

Because of various twists dating to the birth of Delaware's Chancery Court in 1792, the state has one of the purest forms of a court of chancery in the world, more like its ancient ancestor of equitable jurisprudence in England, according to former Chancellor William T. Allen, who is now head of the Center for Law and Business at New York University School of Law.

The court handles no criminal, family or tort matters. It has no juries and is not bound by strict statutes of limitations. Judges may issue temporary restraining orders, injunctions and other equitable relief.

In medieval England, as the common-law courts became calcified with procedure, parties who felt they should have prevailed under principles of fairness would appeal to the king for relief. Cases were referred to the lord chancellor for review. Usually a church official schooled in canon law, the chancellor could tailor a remedy to fit the specific facts, said former state Supreme Court Justice William T. Quillen.

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