Delaware’s Guidance Function

Editor’s Note: This post is from J.W. Verret of the George Mason University School of Law. This post is part of the Delaware law series, which is cosponsored by the Forum and Corporation Service Company; links to other posts in the series are available here.

I recently co-authored an article with Chief Justice Myron T. Steele of the Supreme Court of Delaware, “Delaware’s Guidance: Ensuring Equity for the Modern Witenagemot,” 2 Virginia Law & Business Review 189 (2007), previously explored here, and a subject of the Chief Justice’s keynote luncheon address to the
Business Law Section at the ABA’s 2007 annual meeting. This article was the subject of recent criticism from Jay Brown of Brown opposes the phenomenon we explored in which Delaware’s judges write articles, dicta, and give speeches on emerging issues in corporate governance, as well as participate as advisors to ABA Business Law Section committees. We called it Delaware’s “Guidance Function” and noted some of the more insightful examples from articles and dicta over the last twenty years. That someone of his stature would work on this important topic with a law clerk eager to get published is a testament to his 20 years of dedication mentoring law clerks and spent in tireless service to Delaware’s bench and bar. I should note that this post represents only my own personal response to Brown’s criticism and my understanding of Delaware’s Guidance Function.

Brown’s principle objection is that it represents an impermissible method for a judge to influence the law. He has, unfortunately, missed the point. Delaware’s Guidance Function is about informing Boards of Directors, and the attorneys of the Negotiated Acquisitions bar who advise them, of trends in corporate governance requiring special focus. Advice from neutral and informed jurists at the center of the maelstrom is valuable for Boards and corporate lawyers faced with inevitable uncertainty in the law that previously litigated fact patterns have yet to fully illuminate. Views of Delaware Judges in this medium are, as we were sure to note, clearly non-binding. Whether it is Justice Holmes’s The Common Law, former Chief Justice Rehnquist’s predictive insights into detention jurisprudence in All The Laws but One, or Judge Posner’s voluminous work on a variety of subjects, judges sharing insights outside the four corners of opinion writing has long been a respected pursuit central to American legal history.

Brown also begins from the assumption, central to his sensationalist “race to the bottom” blog, that Delaware’s law and judges favor management at the expense of shareholder value. Yet he noticeably avoids comment on the substance of the article. For instance, three of the more compelling examples of the Guidance Function, which we chose from among literally thousands of Westlaw citations to Delaware dicta and speeches, offer a general sense of our argument. Consider, for instance, former Chancellor Allen’s delphic observation in 1990 that “[I]n a sale context, counsel for a special committee must accept from the outset that as a practical matter she will have to demonstrate that the special committee’s process had integrity; that the committee was informed, energetic and committed in this transaction to the single goal of maximizing the shareholders’ interest….This is not a call to pay even greater attention to appearances; it is advice to abandon the theatrical and to accept and to implement the substance of an arm’s-length process.” William T. Allen, Independent Directors in MBO Transactions: Are They Fact or Fantasy?, 45 BUS. LAW. 2055, 2056 (1990). Kahn v. Lynch, decided in 1994, rewarded advisers who heeded the Chancellor’s call and spawned a line of cases representing one of the more litigated questions today. We also highlighted roughly a dozen other examples, including Chancellor Chandler’s admonitions about termination fees in Louisiana Mun. Police Employees’ Ret. Sys. v. Crawford and the compensation committee best practices offered by Justice Jacobs in the Disney case.

The Guidance Function has been embraced by Delaware’s judges, who travel around the world to remain engaged in the corporate governance debate. Indeed, the Chief Justice joined various experts on May 16, including former Senator Paul Sarbanes, to address the Institutional Investor Education Foundation’s Annual European Conference on vital issues of shareholder rights. The Delaware Guidance Function is a useful service working to the equal benefit of Boards of Directors, corporate counsel, and shareholders in Delaware corporations.

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