* Judge fighting 'darker' side of shareholder lawsuits
* Unusual tactics stand out in powerful court
* Many welcome effort to improve quality of litigation
By Tom Hals
WILMINGTON, Del., Feb 11 Lawyers involved in
corporate litigation understandably might want to avoid the
newest judge on one of the top U.S. business courts.
The judge, Vice Chancellor Travis Laster, has brought some
unusual tactics to the bench at Delaware's Chancery Court,
whose five judges are key arbiters of U.S. corporate law. With
a moralistic style some observers say may be borrowed from his
Presbyterian minister grandfather, Laster is taking on what he
sees as self-interested lawyers who are too cozy with
counterparts on the other side of the aisle.
"He is creative and one of the least reserved in his
decision-making style of any judge I've seen in the Delaware
courts in a long time," said J. Robert Brown, a professor at
the University of Denver's Sturn College of Law.
Delaware's corporate law governs most big U.S. companies.
Businessmen such as billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens and
eBay Inc (EBAY.O) founder Pierre Omidyar have come to the
Chancery Court to settle disputes.
The court is the forum of an increasing number of lawsuits
challenging corporate mergers on behalf of shareholders who say
the deals treat them unfairly. <For details, see
Laster was nominated to a 12-year term in 2009, at the age
of 39, becoming only the 35th member of the bench since 1793,
according to the court's website. He joined after 13 years
litigating both for plaintiffs and defendants, which honed his
insights on how lawyers operate.
Attacking what he calls "the darker underside" of investor
lawsuit settlements, Laster has sometimes used rare measures.
For example, he essentially fired plaintiffs' lawyers in a
lawsuit against the board of Revlon Inc (REV.N), saying they
"literally did nothing" for their clients and rushed to a deal
that included their fees.
Observers noted his tendency to intervene without lawyers
from either side asking for his involvement. He also has
challenged the court's congenial reputation with biting
comments, calling repeat plaintiffs' lawyers "frequent
Those who rush to the courthouse to file a lawsuit as soon
as a deal is announced are "pilgrims" -- because, like those on
the Mayflower, they are first to arrive and quick to "settle."
The judge has said in court that he believes shareholders
would be better off with lawyers who take the time to
investigate corporate conduct before suing, and then to file
fewer, better-drafted complaints.
Laster, who declined to be interviewed for this story, also
takes defense attorneys to task.
"You might think that I am hostile to plaintiffs' lawyers
and to representative litigation," he said at a January hearing
involving a lawsuit against Botox maker Allergan Inc (AGN.N).
"Far from it."
Indeed, in December he took one of his most drastic steps,
threatening to bar David Berger, a partner at corporate defense
firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, from practicing in the
Laster ordered an investigation of Berger for settling
litigation against his client, the board of Nighthawk Radiology
Holdings Inc, in Arizona state court.
Laster thought the deal had a whiff of collusion between
the lawyers for the plaintiff and defendant, as it came soon
after he indicated that plaintiffs in a parallel Delaware
lawsuit had a good case.
Although Laster has known Berger for about 15 years and
has dined with him, "everyone, even people I like on a personal
level, has to follow the rules," the judge said in court.
Berger declined to comment on the matter.
Laster often quotes advice passed on from his minister
grandfather, whose robe he wore and battered Bible he held at
his investiture ceremony.
Laster is not alone in pushing to improve the quality of
litigation. Other judges have arrived at the court with similar
vigor, such as Leo Strine who joined the court in 1998.
"He's Strine on steroids," said a Delaware lawyer who
requested anonymity because he regularly appears before
Laster has plenty of supporters, although few practitioners
wanted to comment on a sitting judge.
"(His actions) might lead to a new paradigm that will
address this issue of lawyers' incentives better than it has in
the past," said Robert Thompson, a law professor at Vanderbilt
University in Nashville, Tennessee.
In a 2009 interview with Reuters shortly after becoming a
judge, Laster emphasized his deep respect for the court's
reputation for civility.
"My job is to decide the cases that come before me and
decide them as narrowly as possible," he said. "What that means
is, I'm not here with some personal agenda to Lasterize the
(Editing by Martha Graybow and Lisa Von Ahn)