Chris Christie Supreme Court Nominees To Get Long-Awaited Hearings [AUDIO]
Tomorrow, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold confirmation hearings for State Supreme Court nominees Phillip Kwon and Bruce Harris.
Democrats and others claim Governor Chris Christie is trying to stack the High Court with Republicans. Christie vehemently denies that.
Public interest groups gathered yesterday at the State House to call on Senate members to continue to support New Jersey's tradition of having a balanced Supreme Court and Justices who are independent from the Executive Branch. They pointed out that since 1947, New Jersey's Governors have alternated Supreme Court nominees between the two major parties. The groups claim the historic and balanced approach has been ended by the Governor's recent nominees.
"The Governor is attempting to make the Court more partisan and more divided than it has been in modern New Jersey history, and to influence inappropriately the work of the court, which should be independent of the Executive branch," says Dena Mottola Jaborska of New Jersey Citizen Action. "The Senate must uphold the tradition of balance and independence that makes New Jersey's Supreme Court one of the most respected in the nation."
Issues of tremendous public concern are likely to be decided by the Supreme Court in coming years. The Court may decide on environmental protections, fair education funding, tenants' rights, marriage equality, consumer protection, the creation of affordable homes, and other important policies that will shape New Jersey's future for the next generation.
Mattola Jaborska and others at yesterday's press conference are joining with many Democrats who claim that should the Christie's two nominees be seated, the Court would be unbalanced with 4 Republicans, 2 Democrats and 1 independent. The Independent, Jaynee LaVecchia was a member of the Whitman Administration.
Christie wasted no time in responding. He said, "Phil Kwon is an Independent by every measure….If both were confirmed we'd have three Republicans, two Independents and two Democrats. The unwritten rule in state government has always been; no more than four of any particular political party."
The Governor says he won't concede the point, but even if Democrats want to say Kwon is a Republican it still doesn't violate tradition because that would still leave a court with a 4 Republican majority for just the 3rd time in the court's history. 7 times prior there has been a 4-member Democratic majority on the court. Historically, Governors have not had greater than a 4 member majority of their own party. Christie says his nominations preserve balance on the court, as it has been known since the adoption of the 1947 constitution, plain and simple.
Christie nominated Harris and Kwon in late January and called for swift hearings. One seat on the high court is already vacant and Justice Virginia Long reached mandatory retirement yesterday.
Earlier this month, Christie was asked about additional information Democrats were requesting. He said, "There's nothing that they've asked for that we haven't given them. If fact, we've given them more than they asked for because they've made supplemental requests since the original questionnaire."
Democrats began asking for Kwon's tax returns for his family's liquor store after it was learned his mother and his wife paid a settlement to the federal government after being accused of making illegal bank deposits. There was no admission of guilt.
Christie says, "They didn't ask for tax returns in the questionnaire and we've given them everything they asked for in the questionnaire so I'm not giving them anything else. I've given them everything they've asked for."
The Governor remains livid that the questionnaires filled out by Kwon and Harris were leaked to the press. That violates Senate regulations and Christie calls the leaks potentially criminal. He says, "I have to tell you, I've got real concerns about how much further we go because of the leaking of this information that they've done."
"No one wants to play any games here," explains State Senate President Steve Sweeney. "We want to get this moving. These are very important positions."
On January 23, Christie nominated Harris, the recently elected Mayor of Chatham and a lawyer with over 20 years of legal experience and Kwon, a First Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Law and Public Safety and former Deputy Chief of the U.S. Attorney's Office Criminal Division.
If confirmed, Harris will become the third African-American to serve on the State Supreme Court and the first openly gay member of the Court and Kwon will become the first Asian-American to serve on the Supreme Court and the first immigrant to serve since the 1947 Constitution created the Court. Justice Anne Paterson, nominated by Governor Christie and confirmed, created the first female majority in the history of the Supreme Court, one of only five in the nation.
When he announced his nominees, Christie said, "Bruce and Phil are each accomplished and talented individuals with skilled legal minds who are highly respected in the legal community. Just as importantly, each of them has demonstrated a remarkable commitment to serving their state and communities. Additionally, not only do their different backgrounds and career paths bring distinctive and important perspectives to the Supreme Court, Bruce and Phil also capture our state's diversity in a way never before seen in the history of the Court."
Six openly gay justices sit on state Supreme Courts nationwide. Garden State Equality chairman Steven Goldstein praised the choice. The gay rights leader acknowledged he was very surprised by the announcement but said the Christie administration has always treated gay community leaders with "warmth and responsiveness."
Christie has two vacancies to fill on the court. The Governor created a firestorm when he decided not to re-nominate the court's only black member, Justice John Wallace, in 2010. The nominations need confirmation from the Democrat-controlled Senate.
"As with all nominees, the process must still run its course," said Sweeney just after the nominations. "While we undergo that process, it is vital that we ensure the Court remain as philosophically independent as possible. I look forward to a full and proper vetting of these nominees and to learning of how they view their role on the Court."