The Delaware General Assembly on June 25 unanimously confirmed Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom attorney Karen L. Valihura as a justice on the Delaware Supreme Court. She is set to replace retiring Justice Jack B. Jacobs, who stepped down June 25.
Valihura, 51, was confirmed shortly after a roughly 16-minute hearing that occurred before the General Assembly’s five-member executive committee. She was asked about her corporate law background, ability to work with other justices, potential conflicts, and views on criminal justice sentencing.
Gov. Jack Markell nominated Valihura earlier last month to succeed Jacobs. She was selected out of four nominees submitted to the governor for consideration on Delaware’s highest court. Immediately after her confirmation, Markell issued a statement praising the legislature’s vote.
“Today’s vote reflects the extraordinary skill Karen has demonstrated as an accomplished member of Delaware’s legal community,” the governor said. “Her intellect, experience, and thoughtful approach to the law make her an ideal person to help continue our state’s tradition of judicial excellence. I was proud to play a role in giving her the opportunity to apply her talents as a member of our highest court. I appreciate the Senate’s consideration and support.”
In her opening remarks, Valihura, who has worked at Skadden since 1989, touted her extensive corporate litigation experience. Her practice focuses on a wide range of corporate litigation involving issues such as mergers and acquisitions, fiduciary duties and federal and state securities fraud claims. She told the state Senate’s executive committee that her corporate law background would supplement the Supreme Court’s strong position in the corporate law community.
“The court has a sterling reputation for corporate law,” she said. “I’ve been practicing at Skadden Arps for 25 years as a corporate litigator and supplemented that service with eight years of service on the [Delaware State Bar Association's] corporation law council, where we’ve authored possible amendments to the Delaware General Corporation Law. I’ve also taken an advisory role with the University of Delaware’s John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance, which promotes programs highlighting the importance of Delaware and Delaware law.”
Valihura told the senators that she has complemented her legal career with public service, noting that her mentors at Skadden had a vision of a Delaware lawyer who was a skilled practitioner and a public servant who gives back to the community. Among her charitable efforts included 18 years on the board of the Delaware Special Olympics, efforts to improve access to legal aid for indigent residents and pro bono work.
Senate President Pro Tempore Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, asked Valihura if she would be able to work with a team, noting that the Supreme Court justices decide cases as a group, not as individual judges. Valihura responded that her legal career has required her to work with others on a frequent basis.
“I think I would do extremely well,” Valihura said. “I exist in a law firm that is a large firm where I work with partners, associates and support staff. I interact with judges and court staff. I’ve also been a member of the firm’s council committee, which has 220 council members. I’ve been a member for eight years and chair for two years. I would suggest that the trust my firm has instilled in me demonstrates my ability to get along with others.”
Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington East, asked Valihura if the Supreme Court’s criminal law docket would pose challenges to an attorney with a strict corporate law background. Roughly 60 percent of the Supreme Court’s docket is criminal cases.
“It is unlikely that any one candidate would be able to cover all the bases,” she said. “I’m excited to work in other areas of the law.”
Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, followed up on Rose Henry’s question on criminal law by asking Valihura where she stands on mandatory minimum sentences. She said she will respect the regulations imposed by the Delaware Legislature.
“First of all, I wouldn’t let my personal views guide me,” she said. “I think the rule of law dictates that judges will follow the law. So if I had political views or personal views, that wouldn’t be relevant. I would respect the separation of powers and respect the legislature’s role in determining these things.”
She added that personally she is concerned about Delaware’s above-average incarceration rate.
“I think the one-size-fits-all approach does not lead to a fair result and so judicial discretion in appropriate cases would seem to be appropriate,” Valihura continued.
In response to a question from Sen. F. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, regarding potential conflicts, Valihura said that, if confirmed, she would withdraw completely from her Skadden partnership interests and would recuse herself if any of her former law firm’s cases were appealed to the Supreme Court. She added that she was prepared to recuse herself for longer than the required one-year period for judges to abstain from adjudicating cases involving their former firms.
Simpson then asked Valihura if she would still have financial ties with Skadden if she was confirmed. She said the firm agreed to accelerate paying out her capital so any economic ties would be eliminated, adding that she would not have any other financial ties with the firm.