By RANDALL CHASE Associated Press
DOVER, Del. (AP) — A lawyer for billionaire Elon Musk had barely started speaking during a recent hearing when the Delaware judge presiding over Twitter’s lawsuit against Musk abruptly cut her off.
“Skip the rhetoric and get to the meat,” said Chancellor Kathaleen St. Jude McCormick bluntly.
The judge’s tone that day illuminates the no-nonsense approach she brings as the first woman to lead the 230-year-old Delaware Court of Chancery. The court is the place the United States turns to for high-stakes disputes involving some of the world’s largest companies, many of which consider Delaware their legal headquarters.
This court fight between the world’s richest man and the influential social platform could easily have turned into a circus, particularly given Musk’s penchant for chaos. That hasn’t happened largely thanks to McCormick, who has been a judge for just four years. She set firm deadlines, reined in overzealous attorney requests, and kept the case moving quickly.
Musk has been battling Twitter since announcing in July that he wanted to scupper a deal to acquire the social media giant for $44 billion. Twitter sued Musk, seeking a “specific performance” court order directing him to consummate the deal.
McCormick recently ordered a temporary stay in the case after Musk indicated he would go ahead with the transaction, but also warned that he would schedule a trial in November if Musk does not close the deal by Oct. 28.
The judge, whose humble demeanor belies her professional confidence, doesn’t like being the center of attention. After joining the court, McCormick admitted that she did not fully appreciate how everything she wrote or said would receive intense scrutiny.
McCormick now seems unfazed that court watchers and legal experts are not only watching his every move, but sometimes pretending to know what he is going to do and why.
“The world will have to wait for the post-trial decision,” he wrote in a September ruling, obliquely acknowledging the public attention on the case.
From an early age, McCormick, 43, has shown that he can adapt and persevere in the face of challenges.
He was born in Dover, the capital of Delaware, and raised with his two older brothers a few miles north in the town of Smyrna. Her mother taught English; her father taught history and coached the Smyrna High School football team.
“Katie” McCormick thought that she, too, would become a teacher, even serving as president of the Delaware Future Educators of America, among other student organizations.
McCormick was also a tough athlete who played fastpitch softball and ran track despite having extreme scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine that was apparent from birth and sometimes required her to wear a brace. In 1995, when she was 15 years old, McCormick underwent spinal fusion surgery.
Two years later, when he was 17, McCormick received a scholarship awarded each year to an athlete from downstate who had overcome a physical handicap. A photograph from that night’s awards banquet shows a smiling McCormick, in a white dress trimmed with paisley, standing between then-US Senator Joe Biden and former NFL quarterback Joe Theisman.
“Some days were a little more difficult than others, but I had faith that everything would work out,” McCormick said at the time, noting that other children he met during his trips to the hospital faced more serious problems.
McCormick became the first Smyrna High student to attend Harvard University, where she majored in philosophy.
McCormick, with a deep and eclectic interest in music, played in an Irish folk band while in college. He also became involved in a student-run legal aid program that helps low-income people in the Boston area. That experience helped spark her interest in the law, which led her to law school at the University of Notre Dame.
McCormick, who has long viewed law as a path to serving others, spent summers working in Northern Ireland for firms specializing in human rights and international conflict resolution. After graduation, he looked home for himself and took a job at the Community Legal Aid Society, where he worked on housing issues.
“His academic record stood out. She was a Delaware native,” said CLASI executive director Dan Atkins, who recruited McCormick. “That wasn’t typical for us, so she was great.”
After two years at CLASI, financial considerations related to the birth of her second child propelled McCormick into private practice. She later admitted that she felt “defeated” by the move because she wanted to follow a service-oriented path. Still, she developed a passion for commercial litigation, as well as expedited proceedings like the expedited schedule she ordered in the Twitter lawsuit.
“His return to public service with the court makes sense. It has come full circle,” said Atkins, who noted that in addition to corporate litigation, the Court of Chancery also handles equally important matters such as trusts and estates, guardianships and real estate disputes.
“I bet she gives those cases as much attention as she gives the Twitter case,” he said. “I guarantee it.”
However, McCormick is not a legal robot without a sense of humor. In the introduction to his article in a law school journal, he mocked the alleged “misspelling” of his first name, Kathaleen, which he shares with his mother and his grandmother. He explained that the unusual spelling was attributable to his great-grandmother, not the magazine’s staff.
On Chancery Court, where justices sometimes cite historical, literary and even pop-culture references in their rulings, McCormick’s views tend to be comparatively matter-of-fact and blunt. However, when she gets the chance, she too can turn a phrase. A ruling last year in a lawsuit involving the cannabis industry opened with a reference to a Grateful Dead song.
In another ruling from last year, McCormick noted that “Julia Child is rumored to have once said, ‘A party without a cake is just a meeting.'” In that case, she directed a private equity firm to acquire a cake decorating company even though buyers had “lost appetite” for the deal after signing it. Such a specific performance order is the same sort of relief Twitter is seeking against Musk.
The icing on that particular cake? A week after that ruling, McCormick, who was named vice chancellor in 2018 when the court was expanded from five justices to seven, was promoted to chancellor.
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