In a crushing defeat for Governor Chris Christie, the prosecutor he nominated to be the first Asian on the State Supreme Court was rejected by the Senate Judiciary panel yesterday after six hours of heated and grueling questioning, one lunch break and a long closed door Q&A.

By a 7-6 margin Phil Kwon was shot down making him the first State Supreme Court nominee in modern history to be rejected. The vote was mostly along party lines with all five Republicans voting 'yes' and seven of the eight Democrats voting 'no.' Senator Brian Stack was the lone Democrat to vote in Kwon's favor.

The confirmation hearing was so lengthy the committee never even got to hear from Christie's other nominee Bruce Harris. His hearing will be rescheduled in the next few weeks.

Kwon spent much of yesterday being grilled about his involvement in a lawsuit against a liquor store co-owned by his wife and mother. His mother made 222 cash deposits from store proceeds just under the $10,000 amount that would trigger federal reporting. The family forfeited $160,000 to settle the civil charges. Kwon says he was unaware of his mother's banking practices, but Democrats were clearly not convinced.

Obviously expecting questions about the settlement, Kwon tried to nip the issue in the bud by talking about it in his opening statement. He said, "She (his mother) was not attempting to launder funds or evade taxes…..She made a mistake because she didn't know the reporting requirements.''

Democrats also question whether Kwon is an Independent as he claims and not a Republican as they believe. They feel his confirmation would have lopsided the High Court in favor of Republicans.

Democrats 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.

Committee chairman Nick Scutari asked Kwon, "How can we possibly accept you on the court as an unaffiliated, independent party member when the only party you're ever been affiliated with is the Republican Party?"

"Mr. Chairman I believe that I am an independent, unaffiliated person," responded Kwon. "I'm an unaffiliated, independent person. Not a part of any political party, Republican or Democrat."

Democratic State Senator Loretta Weinberg said, "We have to make sure we have a balanced court when they make these decisions for every child in the State of New Jersey. We know we were given a nominee who was a Republican for most of his voting life. Why has the Governor tried to present the nominee as an Independent?"

The already heated hearing ratcheted up even more. In his remarks before casting a 'yes' vote, GOP State Senator Kevin O'Toole said, "We haven't had a hearing today. We've had a lynching,…….. I haven't heard a scintilla of evidence to suggest Phillip Kwon isn't qualified…..It is an outrage, the spectacle that has taken place over the last two months. His reputation has been dragged through the mud. Are we establishing a new low?"

Christie held a press conference just after Kwon went down in flames and blamed Democrats for a conducting "a circus" and a "political sideshow." He also accused Democrats of playing to their base who were opposed to public worker pension and health benefit reforms.

"This was the payback," said Christie. ""Phil Kwon was sacrificed on the altar of payback to the CWA and the NJEA and the AFL-CIO….I understand political realities and today was political payback for pension and benefit reform. I get it."

Scutari says Kwon was offered the opportunity to step aside rather than go through with the hearing, but Kwon said no.

Christie says he got a call at 9am informing that Kwon was not going to be approved by the Committee.

"The hearing didn't matter," says Christie. "The hearing didn't matter. The cake was baked. Before he sat in the chair this morning the cake was baked……To see what Phil went through today is not only disappointing for me personally, but also a disappointment for the state, the process and the judicial system."

As for a nominee to replace Kwon, Christie says, "We'll move on…..It's back to the drawing board......As I've said, there is no plan 'B.'"

Most people in New Jersey probably can't name a single sitting State Supreme Court justice so many are probably wondering why they should even care that one of Christie's nominees was rejected. Fairleigh Dickinson University political science professor Peter Woolley says the high court impacts every New Jerseyan's life.

"You may think that the justices are just anonymous people who make legal decisions, but in fact they make decisions about your life, how much money you are going to pay," explains Woolley. "You have to think of the court as every bit as powerful and as decisive as the legislature and the Governor……Everything that the legislature does, everything that the Governor does is likely to be filtered in some way through the court either sooner or later."

On the campaign trail Christie said he wanted to reshape the Supreme Court. He often rails against school funding decisions that still force the state to spend an inordinate amount of property tax dollars on just the 31 poorest schools in New Jersey.

Woolley says, "There's very little you can do about changing the way schools are funded in New Jersey and changing the way your property taxes operate without going through the Supreme Court."


Courtesy Governor's Office