With President Donald Trump’s nomination of Colm Connolly and Maryellen Noreika to serve on Delaware’s district court, the state’s federal bench is finally poised to return to full strength, after a year in which the shorthanded court saw a steep rise in patent filings.
However, if confirmed, the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware would still face the administrative challenge of phasing out a slate of visiting judges in favor of its two newest members.
Connolly and Noreika, both experienced intellectual property litigators, are widely seen as quick studies who were selected in part for their ability to quickly dive into their new workload. But the timeline for a confirmation vote remains murky as lawmakers return from their winter recess.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware has been operating with two judicial vacancies, since U.S. District Judges Sue L. Robinson and Gregory M. Sleet announced in early 2017 that they would be taking senior status. Robinson has since retired, while Sleet has continued to manage his own docket.
Meanwhile, the court saw patent filings nearly double in the second part of the year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s May decision in TC Heartland v. Kraft Foods Group Brands limited venue-shopping in patent litigation, causing Chief Judge Leonard P. Stark to enlist a roster of visiting judges to help handle the growing caseload.
Those developments created a renewed sense of urgency for Delaware’s Democratic senators, Chris Coons and Tom Carper, who relayed their concerns to White House Counsel Don McGahn, tasked with overseeing judicial selection.
According to sources familiar with the process, Coons and Carper interviewed six candidates and recommended Connolly, a Republican, and Noreika, a Democrat, for the posts. By October, the administration had agreed to nominate both attorneys for the post.
But the announcement lagged until the Senate on Dec. 20 passed a sweeping tax-reform legislation, seen as one of the key initiatives during the first year of the Trump administration, sources said. Hours later, Connolly and Noreika were included in Trump’s ninth wave of judicial nominations.
Now, the focus turns to how quickly Noreika and Connolly will be able to begin their work on the court.
Sources said hearings for the nominees could begin as soon as mid-January, and a subsequent vote before the full Senate is expected to be largely noncontroversial. From there, sources said Noreika and Connolly would likely be sworn in quickly with a formal investiture to follow later.
It would then be up to Stark to decide how to reassign cases from approximately a dozen visiting judges to Noreika and Connolly.
Since Robinson’s retirement, about one-quarter of all new civil cases have been assigned to a vacant judgeship docket, which is initially handled by the district’s three magistrate judges. Upon the filing of case-dispositive motions, those cases have been reassigned to visiting judges, mostly from Pennsylvania’s Middle and Eastern districts.
All new criminal cases have gone to Stark, Sleet and U.S. District Judge Richard G. Andrews, who also split a “full and equal share” of the court’s civil docket, according to a Sept. 22 announcement from Stark.
Stark did not respond to questions last week seeking comment on the nominations or how he planned to handle the transition administratively.