Christie Sets Path with Picks for NJ Supreme Court

John Mooney | January 24, 2012 | More Issues
Nominations of two new justices is historic day for the state's highest court

Credit: Amanda Brown
Bruce Harris (left) and Philip Kwon
The last time New Jersey’s state Supreme Court saw this kind of turnover was nearly 40 years ago in 1973, when four seats were filled by then Gov. William Cahill.

Now, Gov. Chris Christie is taking advantage of his once-a-generation opportunity, yesterday nominating two more justices to the seven-member court — making it three so far this term — with potentially a fourth to come in 2013.

How much and how quickly this will represent the expected shift to right for the court is yet to be seen, observers said. But Christie embraced the moment in announcing the nominations of Phillip Kwon and Bruce Harris at a Statehouse press conference, saying the court appointments may be his most lasting decisions.

“I think one of the most solemn responsibilities any governor has is the opportunity to name associate justices to the Supreme Court,” he said. “They always long outlast the governor, and their legacy will become part of my legacy.”

The reactions came in quickly yesterday, if not a little cautiously, to Christie’s choices. Much was made of the diversity of the well-known and accomplished lawyers.

Kwon is first assistant state Attorney General and a former federal prosecutor who was lead lawyer in the corruption case against former Newark Mayor Sharpe James. Harris is a private banking and commercial attorney, but stepped into the public spotlight recently as the first openly gay man elected mayor in New Jersey in his hometown of Chatham Borough.

Yet there was little doubt that they come from the conservative side of the political spectrum, with Harris a Republican and Kwon undeclared but clearly a favorite of Christie’s from their work together in the federal prosecutor’s office. If confirmed by the state Senate, they will replace two justices, Virginia Long and John Wallace, who were among the liberal wing of the court.

But how that will translate into the court’s future decisions is the open question, especially given Christie’s antipathy toward the court’s past handling of hot-button cases like Abbott v. Burke school funding and Mount Laurel affordable housing.

Christie repeated in his State of the State last week that the court’s Abbott decisions and its “grand experiment with New Jersey children is a failure.” He has not hid his hopes that his nominations to the court would see those decisions overturned.

Yesterday, the governor was less strident with the two nominees standing behind him, and said he never spoke with either man about specific cases. Still, he said he believed they were of like mind in the broader role of the court as less activist in state policy.

“What I am confident is these are the type of justices who will acquit their responsibilities appropriately and understand the true nature of the court’s role in a three-branch system,” he said.

But Christie, like others, also harkened to previous justices in both state and federal courts who have not always followed the expected line.

“What that will mean in specific cases, I am just another executive nominating Supreme Court justices who may wind up being really pleased or displeased about the results in each individual case,” he said.

Democratic leaders in the state Senate said they would not prejudge the candidates, saying they would wait for confirmation hearings later this winter or spring. Although Christie called for the justices to be confirmed by March, when Long steps down, the Democratic leadership made no such promises.

“As with all nominees, the process must still run its course,” said state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) in a statement. “While we undergo that process, it is vital that we ensure the Court remains 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,” he said.

Either way, just the naming of two new justices in a single act makes it a historic day for the court. They would join Christie’s last appointee, Anne Patterson, who was sworn in late last year after a protracted political stalemate that delayed her confirmation.

“Any time even one member joins the court, it changes the inner dynamics, and when two, even more so,” said Peter Verniero, a former associate justice and state Attorney General. “This is a very significant day in the life of the court.”

Contacted yesterday, Verniero and other court observers said the turnover not only affects the legal decisions the court reaches, but even the cases it hears. Only three justices are needed to certify a case to come before the court.

“With two more coming in line at once, the immediate impact is on the certification process,” Verniero said. “That’s a big part of the job, deciding what cases to even take.”

But Verniero was cautious about predicting that this was a clear shift to the right for the court on big decisions like Abbott, which he himself argued for Christie before this same court last year.

“Sometimes it is very difficult to predict, and I can say from experience that even a justice doesn’t know until he or she hears all the arguments,” Verniero said.

“It can be interesting and entertaining [to speculate],” the former justice said, “but I wouldn’t go to the bank on it.”