New Jersey Democrats rejected Governor Chris Christie’s second straight Supreme Court candidate, citing concern about the nominee’s lack of courtroom experience and his intent to recuse himself from same-sex marriage issues.
Bruce Harris, 61, a finance attorney and Republican mayor of Chatham, would have been the state’s first openly gay justice and the third black to serve on the court. His nomination was rejected 7-6 by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“What this was was a political assassination -- they wanted to wipe this guy out, so they did,” Christie said in his office following the vote. “You saw a highly qualified nominee sacrificed for partisan politics. This time was just a different excuse to achieve the desired end.”
Harris, an advocate of same-sex marriage, said he would remove himself from hearing the issue if it came before the court. Democrats said that would take Harris out of one of the most significant matters pending in the legal system. A gay-rights group is challenging New Jersey’s civil-unions law, saying it doesn’t provide the same benefits and protections as marriage.
“You made a political decision on a constitutional issue in order to get the job,” said Senator Nia Gill, a black Democrat from Montclair, referring to his plan to recuse himself on the matter. “It flies in the face of the independence of the court.”
The defeat is the second time in modern history a governor’s choice for the state Supreme Court has been rejected. Both have occurred under Christie.
Steven Goldstein, chair of the gay-rights group Garden State Equality, said in a statement that he didn’t fault any senator who voted against Harris and called his answers on why he would recuse himself “nonsensical.”
Gill and other Democrats on the committee said a move by Harris to abstain on same-sex marriage issues would be akin to Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, opting not to hear cases involving civil rights or a female justice sitting out issues involving abortion or birth control.
“This move was not political calculus,” Harris told the panel. “I decided it on my own.”
Senator Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat and partner in a Parsippany-based law firm, said approving the nominee would call into question the independence of the court.
Democrats also questioned Harris about his professional experience. He said that while he has worked on $8 billion of corporate transactions, he has never argued a case in court.
“Surely he’s a wonderful individual and he has a great background,” said Senator Paul Sarlo, a Democrat from Wood-Ridge who sits on the panel. “But clearly he did not do anything to help convince this committee that he has the experience to do this.”
The panel in March rejected Christie’s nomination of Phillip Kwon after Democrats questioned a $160,000 settlement of U.S. government allegations that family members sought to avoid financial-reporting requirements tied to their business. Kwon would have been the first Asian-American on the court and the first immigrant.
“Having already suffered the ignominy of being the first modern governor to lose a nominee, he’s now lost two,” Patrick Murray, a pollster who teaches political science at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, said in an interview. “There was a perception that Christie was ticking boxes when he made the Harris selection.”
The judiciary panel has eight Democrats and five Republicans. One Democrat, Senator Brian Stack, voted for Harris, as did all the Republicans.
Nicholas Scutari, a Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said his party wants to see Christie maintain both political and racial balance on the court. Democrats and Christie have argued over his characterization of Justice Jaynee LaVecchia as an independent.
Christie, who said the current two vacancies and the impasse are harming the court, said if Harris had been confirmed the partisan balance on the court would have been three Republicans, two Democrats and two independents. He said he’ll only nominate Republicans until his party controls four of the seven seats.
Republicans praised Harris for his work on complex financial transactions, including structured loans and bond deals that they said involved a specialized set of skills that would benefit the Supreme Court.
“I don’t see a black man, I don’t see a gay man, I see a proud American who has done incredible things with his life,” said Senator Kevin O’Toole, a Cedar Grove Republican and lawyer. He voted for Harris.
Christie, a former U.S. attorney for New Jersey, was criticized by Democrats after he denied reappointment to John Wallace, the second black justice, in 2010. That sparked a standoff that lasted a year and delayed hearings on Anne Murray Patterson, Christie’s Republican nominee. That feud ended when Christie and Sweeney agreed to let Patterson replace Justice Roberto Rivera Soto, who retired in September.
Harris would have filled one of two vacancies created by Christie’s rejection of Wallace and the retirement of Justice Virginia Long, who stepped down at the mandatory age of 70.
Harris most recently worked at Greenberg Traurig LLP, where he focused on public finance and corporate lending. He holds degrees from Amherst College, Boston University School of Management and Yale Law School.
The governor, soon after taking office in January 2010, said he wanted to “turn the court away from its history of using legal precedent to set social and tax policies in our state -- a role which belongs squarely with the legislative and executive branches.”
Christie has criticized the high court for “legislating from the bench.” He has cited examples such as the Abbott v. Burke school-funding cases and Mount Laurel affordable-housing rulings.