Christie Faces Hurdle In Remaking NJ Supreme Court

WNYC News — Thursday, March 22, 2012

By Nancy Solomon

Governor Chris Christie faces a major hurdle in remaking the New Jersey Supreme Court Thursday when the majority Democrat Senate Judiciary Committee will vet his nominees for two open seats on the seven-member court.

Christie nominated Bruce Harris, an African-American who would be the first openly gay member of the court and Phillip Kwon, who would be the first Asian-American Supreme Court justice in the state.

The Republican governor has been widely praised for nominating two men who would add diversity to the state's highest court. But political consensus ends there and critics argue that too little is known about the men who would have the power to help shape the state's future.

"They've not made a mark for themselves in New Jersey," said Frank Askin, professor of law at Rutgers University and director of its Constitutional Law Clinic. "They've not distinguished themselves as spokesmen or leaders of the public interest."

Harris, 61, is a finance attorney who is the Republican mayor of Chatham, a small town in Morris County. Kwon, 44, is a well respected assistant attorney general and federal prosecutor who once worked under Christie. But little is known about what they believe in.

Christie is trying to create a court in his own image," Askin said.

Christie has made it clear he wants a court that would repeal two landmark decisions: Abbott, which requires wealthy suburbs to share the burden of funding low-income urban schools; and Mt. Laurel, which requires all towns to have a certain amount of affordable housing.

That has left many Democrats suspicious of Christie's choices for the court, and garnered support from his fellow Republicans.

"I believe, and this is no secret, that many people in NJ believe that our court has been tilted very far to the left," said Gerald Cardinale, leading Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

At the heart of contention is that Christie is replacing two Democrats with one registered Republican - Harris - and a nominee Christie described as independent. Kwon was registered as a Republican in New York until he moved to New Jersey last year, and then registered without any affiliation.

"We think that's a political posture that either he or the governor is making or a combination," said Dena Mottola Jaborsky, program director New Jersey Citizen Action. "That's unacceptable. That's not the level of integrity you want in a Supreme Court justice. You just want honesty in someone who's in that position.

For decades, New Jersey governors have followed an unwritten rule that the court should not be skewed in favor of either party. But Christie is maintaining a long tradition of skirting the party affiliation rule, according to Askin, the Rutgers law professor.

One of these court openings exists because - in an unprecedented move — the governor refused to re-appoint Justice John Wallace Jr. in 2010, a Democrat and the court's only African-American. The second seat is being vacated by the mandatory retirement of Virginia Long, another Democrat.

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