Christie High Court Picks Include First Asian, Gay Justices

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said he wants to put the first-ever Asian-American and an openly gay justice on the state’s Supreme Court, after denying tenure for the bench’s only black member.

Bruce Harris, 61, a Republican and mayor of Chatham, would be the first openly gay justice and the third black on the high court. Phil Kwon, 44, who isn’t registered as a member of any party, would be the first Asian-American and the first immigrant, Christie, 49, a Republican, said today at a press conference in Trenton.

“Not only do their different backgrounds and career paths bring distinctive and important perspectives to the court, Bruce and Phil also capture our state’s diversity,” Christie said. “This is an important moment in our state’s history and our country’s history that signals how far we’ve all come.”

Christie said he hasn’t spoken to either nominee about past or future cases before the court, including the issue of gay marriage. His announcement comes a day before lawmakers begin hearings on a Democratic effort to make same-sex marriage legal. The governor, who said last year that he is “not a fan” of the practice, told reporters today that the nomination of Harris shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign he has changed his mind on the issue.

Gay Marriage

Christie’s predecessor, Democrat Jon Corzine, signed a measure in 2006 to allow civil unions, after the high court ordered lawmakers to extend marital rights to gay and lesbian couples. In 2008, a state panel created to evaluate the effectiveness of civil unions said it doesn’t provide the same benefits and protections as marriage.

New Jersey Democrats failed to pass a gay marriage bill two years ago. It was defeated in the Senate 20-14 with three abstaining, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who later said he made a mistake in not voting for the measure. The bill never reached the desk of Corzine, who supported it.

Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, a group that has fought to make gay marriage legal, said his jaw “dropped” when Christie called to notify him of the planned announcement minutes before it was made. Goldstein said he and Christie didn’t discuss the marriage issue.

“Today was a landmark for the civil-rights movement by the governor, independent of where he stands on marriage equality, and I would caution anyone against reading the tea leaves on that,” Goldstein said in a telephone interview. “We can’t draw any conclusions.”

Court Rulings

Christie has accused the high court of “legislating from the bench” by forcing governors and lawmakers to raise spending to comply with its decisions. Examples he has cited include the Abbott v. Burke school-funding cases and the Mount Laurel Affordable housing rulings.

Harris is an attorney who most recently worked at the law firm of Greenberg Traurig and focused on public finance and commercial lending. He holds degrees from Amherst College, Boston University School of Management and Yale Law School, and would step down as mayor to accept the court job, Christie said.

Kwon, who was born in Korea and is a resident of Closter, is currently first assistant Attorney General and previously worked with Christie in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He holds degrees from Georgetown University and Rutgers Law School. Neither nominee has served as a sitting judge, Christie said.

Senate Approval

The nominations need approval from the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. Sweeney, a West Deptford Democrat, held up Christie’s May 2010 Supreme Court nomination of Anne Patterson for a year, saying the governor’s unprecedented move to deny tenure to a sitting Supreme Court justice, John Wallace, had politicized the court.

Wallace was the court’s only black justice at the time. The current six members are all white, and include four women. The addition of Patterson created the first female majority in the history of court, and one of only five in the nation, according to Christie’s office.

“The addition of even one member on a seven-member court can be significant -- with two new members even more so,” said former Justice Peter Verniero, who was appointed to the bench in 1999 and stepped down in 2004 to return to private practice. “This is a very significant day for the court.”

‘Philosophically Independent’

Verniero said one of the areas that may be most affected by the spate of Christie nominees is in deciding which cases reach the court. A prospective case must receive votes from three justices to be put on the panel’s docket.

Harris and Kwon will fill the openings created by the departure of Wallace and the March 1 retirement of Justice Virginia Long, Christie said. Democrats in the Senate should give the two men quick hearings, the governor said.

“As with all nominees, the process must still run its course,” Sweeney said in a statement. “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.”

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