Colm Connolly and Maryellen Noreika were confirmed this week to serve as judges on Delaware’s federal bench, in a sudden move that was expected to bring much-needed relief to a shorthanded district court amid a surge of filings.
The U.S. Senate approved the nominations by voice vote Wednesday night. Connolly, a former U.S. attorney and partner with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, and Noreika, an experienced trial lawyer and patents expert with Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell, were expected to be quickly sworn in during a private ceremony next week, sources said on Friday.
The confirmations bring back to full strength a four-member court that had been coping with a significant uptick in patent cases in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark TC Heartland v. Kraft Foods Group Brands decision last year.
All the while, the court had been operating down a full-time judge, after Sue L. Robinson retired from active service in July 2017. Judge Gregory M. Sleet, who has taken senior status and plans to retire, stayed on in the interim to help alleviate some of the burden on the court. Meanwhile, Chief Judge Leonard P. Stark has recruited a slate of visiting judges and given the district’s magistrate judges a greater role in handling cases.
“My colleagues and I were thrilled to learn this week of the confirmations of Mr. Connolly and Ms. Noreika,” Stark said in a statement on Friday. “We look forward to them beginning their judicial tenure as soon as possible. We will begin assigning new cases to the new judges as soon as they take their oath of office.”
Stark’s chambers was not prepared to announce plans for reassigning the cases being overseen by the 14 visiting judges, but said additional information would come sometime after Connolly and Noreika are sworn in. Stark did not confirm the date of the private swearing-in ceremony.
The Senate’s confirmation vote Wednesday evening came as a surprise to many judges and lawyers in the district, who had been preparing for an extended shortage. The Trump administration has largely prioritized the confirmation of appellate judges over the district courts, and there was concern that Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court would slow matters even further.
“I think people were losing hope. It was a great relief to see these two strong nominees confirmed given the specter of a long and rocky road,” said Edward R. Reines, co-head of Weil, Gotshal & Manges‘ nationwide patent litigation practice.
“The docket hasn’t really slowed, but I think the community thought it would be unsustainable in the long run,” he said.
“We’re ecstatic,” said Adam Poff, who chairs the intellectual property practice at Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor. “It’ll bring a lot more predictability, and it will probably promote consistency” on the court.
Sleet said Friday that he was continuing to issue rulings and meet with attorneys when he learned about the confirmation votes.
“This was a real surprise,” he said.
Sleet, who took senior status last May, said to preside over a full docket of cases was rooted in a sense of duty and his experience serving as one of just two judges on the district court after Judge Kent A. Jordan was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in 2006.
“I had a sense of how busy things were then, and things have only gotten busier,” he said. “We’re public servants, and we have a job to do.”
Sleet is no longer taking new civil or criminal cases and said he intends to start “winding down” his cases ahead of his last day on Sept. 28. After that, he plans to join JAMS in Philadelphia and build out a practice as a neutral in mediation and arbitration proceedings, as well as conduct mock trials for clients.
For Connolly and Noreika, the learning curve will be quick, Sleet said, but both would learn to handle the workload and find people to rely on as they get up to speed.
“I think we’re fortunate with the two individuals coming on,” he said.
A ceremonial investiture for Connolly and Noreika is expected to take place in the coming weeks; however, a date has not yet been set. The new judges were expected to start taking cases immediately after being sworn in next week.