The Senate Judiciary Committee will consider the nomination of Bruce Harris to the state Supreme Court next Thursday, but strong doubts are emerging that he will win enough votes to pass.
The Democratic majority leadership on the committee has signaled opposition, and Harris will have to swing at least two Democrats to gain the panel’s consent.
“I wouldn’t bet on him,” says committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, when asked of what he thinks Harris’ chances.
Another bloc of opposition weighed in on Friday as the Legislative Black Caucus came out against Harris, who is black. “Mr. Harris’ legal qualifications do not meet the high standard required for the New Jersey Supreme Court,” said caucus chairman Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex. “The nomination of Mr. Harris sends the wrong message — that we can only achieve diversity on the Supreme Court through lowering the bar for qualifications. In a state with many distinguished African-American lawyers and judges, nothing could be further from the truth.”
One point of contention is Harris’ lack of litigation background. Harris is of counsel to Greenberg Traurig in its Florham Park office, where he concentrates in banking, finance and bonds. Before that, Harris was at Morristown’s Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti from 1992 to 2005, and worked in the same practice area.
“There’s a lack of experience that might help him on the job,” says Scutari. “I’m concerned about the lack of courtroom experience in the Supreme Court, in the Appellate Division, in Superior Court, in Workers’ Comp court or municipal court. If he’s going to be sitting up there, I would think it would be helpful to have done some of that work.”
Another voiced objection is his stance on gay marriage. Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, has said he will vote against moving Harris’ nomination out of the committee because Harris, who is openly gay, has said he would abstain from the impending challenge to the de facto ban on same-sex marriage, which presently is in the trial courts.
Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, the Black Caucus vice chair, called it “inappropriate to commit ahead of time to recuse oneself from a case based on one’s race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Gay judges should be able to rule on cases involving gay people, just as African-American judges should be able to rule on cases involving African-American people, and white judges should be able to rule on cases involving white people.
“Mr. Harris’ promise on recusal sets a dangerous precedent and only emphasizes why he is not qualified for the job,” Coleman said Friday.
Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie, released a statement last Tuesday expressing anger at reports that Harris may not make it past the Judiciary Committee.
“Before a second of testimony has been heard or a single question has been asked, once again Democrats are disrespecting the nomination process and rushing to judgment to kill another qualified man’s nomination before he even sits in the committee room,” Roberts said. “Nominees to our state’s highest court deserve better than this.”
In March, the committee rejected another of Christie’s nominees to the court, First Assistant Attorney General Phillip Kwon, in a 7-6 vote, although that had more to do with the financial irregularities of a liquor store owned by his family.
Like Kwon, Harris will have to pick up the votes of at least two Democrats in order to get past the committee, assuming that all five Republicans vote for him as well. Sen. Brian Stack, D-Hudson, broke ranks with his party in March and voted for Kwon.
Thus, Harris will have to garner a vote from one of the six other Democrats — Scutari, Stack, Nia Gill of Essex County, Nellie Pou of Passaic County, Paul Sarlo of Bergen County and Loretta Weinberg, also of Bergen County. Aside from Scutari, who says he is keeping an open mind, none returned a reporter’s calls for comment.
It is not clear whether the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments Committee has found Harris qualified. A compact with the governor’s office requires the Bar will keep the vetting process confidential and to report only to the governor on whether or not it deems a candidate qualified.
The Star-Ledger of Newark reported last Thursday, based on anonymous sources, that the Bar committee had found Harris qualified, but the chairman of the Bar’s appointments committee, Woodstown solo Frank Hoerst III, did not return the Law Journal’s call. The governor’s office refuses to comment.
Scutari says he has received no information about the Bar’s opinion on Harris, although the Bar reserves the right to testify in a confirmation hearing if it gives a candidate a not qualified rating and a governor chooses to nominate the candidate anyway.
No one from the Bar has asked to testify at the confirmation hearing, Scutari says. The last time it did so was in 1999, when Gov. Christine Todd Whitman nominated Attorney General Peter Verniero. The committee had found him not to be qualified due to slim practice experience. But the committee and the Senate, then controlled by Republicans, confirmed him anyway.
Like Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, Christie may have chosen to rely solely on his own Judicial Selection Committee, which approved the nominations of Harris and Kwon in February. The advisory panel is comprised of Verniero, the chairman, now with Newark’s Sills Cummis & Gross; Rosemary Alito, of the Newark office of K&L Gates; former New Jersey State Bar Association President Richard Badolato of Roseland’s Connell Foley; former Attorney General John Degnan, now vice president and chief operating officer of Chubb Group; and retired Superior Court Judges Theodore Bozonelis, Harriet Derman and Bette Uhrmacher. Christie replaced the advisory panel in 2010 after all seven previous members quit to protest his decision not to nominate Wallace for tenure.
It is possible that Democrats could alienate key supporters — gay rights groups and African Americans — if they vote against Harris, but those groups have been largely quiet and have not lately been pressing for Harris’ confirmation.
In fact, the president of the New Jersey chapter of the NAACP, James Harris, who is not related to the candidate, has voiced doubts about the nomination. “Bruce has kept himself away from the civil rights movement, and we’ll probably keep ourselves away from him,” he said in February. The next month, he said in a Star-Ledger guest column: “In nominating Bruce Harris and Phillip Kwon to the state Supreme Court, Christie has done what no other governor has ever done — tried to make the Supreme Court an arm of his political party.”
Steven Goldstein, the president of the gay rights group Garden State Equality, has endorsed Harris. Lori Caughman, the president of the Garden State Bar Association, an African-American bar association, did not return a reporter’s call.
Lawyers familiar with the process say that of the two nominees, Kwon would likely have been found to be more qualified because of his more extensive record. Kwon was with the Newark office of LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae from 1994 until 1997 and clerked for U.S. District Judge Harold Ackerman from 1997 to 1999. He joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1999, and when Christie was named U.S. attorney in 2002, Kwon was appointed head of the special prosecutions division. He served in that role until 2005, when Christie put him in charge of the violent crimes unit.
In 2006, he was promoted to deputy chief of the criminal division. Kwon was lead prosecutor in the government’s corruption case against former Newark Mayor Sharpe James in 2008. In 2010, after Christie took office as governor, Kwon was made first assistant to Attorney General Paula Dow.
The Senate has approved one of Christie’s other Republican nominees to the court, Anne Patterson. She replaced Republican Roberto Rivera-Soto, who chose last year to not seek tenure.