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Opinion: Harris and Kwon -- Get On With It

Christie's surprising Supreme Court nominees deserve a hearing -- sooner, rather than later.

Chris Christie announced his Supreme Court nominations on January 23. He asked that they be confirmed by March 1, a five-week window. That seems like sufficient time to arrive at a decision on the two nominees.

I remember that January day well. Christie walked out of his back office to introduce two astonishing nominees. One was gay and African-American. His partner of 32 years stood nearby. The other was Asian-American and born overseas.

Mike Drewniak, the governor’s press secretary, had already told me, "You'll wanna be there," when I asked about the hastily called press conference. He was right.

Who thought Christie would go in this direction? The Statehouse was charged that morning with anticipation of the following day’s first hearing on a gay marriage bill. And here’s Chris Christie, fresh off another charm offensive aimed at national Republicans, upping the ante slightly. You want gay? I’ll give you gay. You like minorities? How about two? You think I’m courting the right wing? Here’s something for you liberals!

The other beauty of his move was that it played into Sen. Steve Sweeney’s prior demand for more diversity on the High Court. Sweeney had held up Anne Paterson’s nomination for over a year because he was upset with Christie’s removal of John Wallace for no apparent reason other than to turn the direction of the Court. Wallace had been the Court’s lone African-American. Sweeney had complained that the complexion of the Court was now too white. So, with these two nominees, Christie was able to say he was acceding to the Senate president’s request.

In thirty years of covering the Statehouse, I don’t remember a governor ever nominating two people for the High Court at one time. So it was precedent-setting in that regard, as well.

Since that day, there has been a struggle over these nominations. Democrats want to go slow. Republicans want the nominees confirmed.

It’s true that neither nominee was well known on January 23. Since then, thanks to the reporting of Chris Baxter at the Star-Ledger, we’ve learned the remarkable story of the Kwon family’s $159,000 civil penalty to the federal government for making illegal bank deposits.

At least we’ve learned the outlines of it. Kwon’s mother owns a liquor store in Mount Vernon, NY. Kwon's father had a stroke a few years ago. The mother runs the store with Kwon’s wife. On 222 occasions between April 2010 and February 2011, the mother and wife apparently deposited just shy of $10,000 cash in the store bank account, $10,000 being the amount that triggers a federal reporting requirement.

Where did all this cash come from? Were the Kwon parents hoarding proceeds from their store? Where else could it have come from? We’re talking about taking more than $9,000 in cash to the bank each day almost every day for nine months! How did the feds, for whom Philip Kwon had worked, discover it? Why did they seize only $290, 236 of it, instead of closer to the full $2.2 million the deposits added up to? And were they going easy on the Kwons because Phillip had worked in the office of the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey before coming down to Trenton with his boss in that office Chris Christie?

All these questions and more need to be answered. But they are not being answered by a prolonged period of haggling over the nominations.

Senator Nick Scutari told a handful of reporters on January 24 the hearings before his Judiciary Committee would not happen any time soon. Sen. Sweeney’s statements have been cool about the nominations, diversity notwithstanding. The NAACP has come out against Bruce Harris because he has no substantial civil rights record.

Meanwhile, the Democrats are questioning Kwon’s residency (he moved from New York to Closter in 2010), the sincerity of his lack of political affiliation (he was a registered Republican in New York). They are questioning Harris’s lack of courtroom experience, while his supporters note that he handled $8 billion worth of transactions over 20 years at two of the state’s most prestigious law firms, Ryker, Danzig (where former Justice Steward Pollock practices} and Greenberg, Traurig (a big national firm).

One of the bullet-points on Kwon’s resume that Christie and fellow Republicans like to point out is that he led the prosecution of former Newark Mayor Sharpe James.

I sat through some of that trial. What I remember most is sentencing day. The government wanted to put the mayor away for 20 years. That seemed excessive for the offense of steering a parcel of city-owned land to your mistress and helping her flip it to make a good profit. Judge William Martini, the former Congressman, chastised federal prosecutors that day for their over-reaching. I’d never seen a federal judge light into the unfairness of a proposed sentence the way Martini did. He ended up sentencing James to two years. Kwon led that prosecution, but of course he may have only been following orders on the sentence request. Ultimately that rests with Chris Christie.

My point is, we need to hear about these things in an orderly proceeding, not dribbled out over months in the B section of the Ledger.

Of both nominees it’s being said, “Are these the best legal minds the governor could have found?” That’s a fair question. It implies that Christie might also have chosen these nominees just to mess with the Democrats’ minds, which is also a fair speculation. The best way to find out is to subject them to the kind of grilling that Peter Verniero got when he was nominated to the High Court by Governor Whitman, or that Chief Justice Robert Wilentz got on his renomination in 1986. The Senate Judiciary Committee has always been very capable of putting a nominee for anything through his or her paces if it puts its collective mind to the task.

And don’t forget what happened when Associate Justice Anne Patterson finally got her day before the committee. The prim Republican lady from Morris County and Ryker, Danzig -- who had been held up for a year because Chris Christie “unfairly” took out John Wallace -- blew ‘em all away with her sophistication, preparedness, knowledge of the law, and willingness to engage. Maybe Harris and Kwon could do the same. Or one can and one cannot.

Senate Democratic spokesman Derek Roseman told me the other day, “No hearings are scheduled.” When I asked why he said individual members of the committee like to meet the nominees privately, where they can have a more frank and informal discussion, and that it takes a long time to schedule all those appointments. Fair enough. We’re a week into February. If the Democrats haven’t scheduled a hearing by March 15, I’d say they are dragging their feet.

The Governor’s office recently pointed out that the time elapsed between nomination and confirmation was 4 days for Justice Long, 4 for Justice LaVecchia, 17 for Chief Justice Rabner, 32 for Justice Hoens, and 64 for Justice Albin. It’s 52 days from January 23 to March 15. That should be enough to set the table. Justice Long turns 70 on March 1 , and that’s when her seat becomes vacant. Former Justice Wallace turns 70 on March 13, and that’s when Sweeney and Christie agreed his old seat could be filled.

So let’s have a hearing. Two days worth if necessary. The nominees deserve it for putting themselves forward. The Governor deserves it. The process deserves it. And the press wants it.

To paraphrase Drewniak, we all wanna be there.

Michael Aron is chief political correspondent of NJTV and vice president for news and public affairs at the Foundation for New Jersey Public Broadcasting.

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