Gov. Chris Christie’s Supreme Court nominees have drawn mixed reviews from bar organizations that represent different racial groups, each seeking their own brand of diversity on the court.
Christie’s latest picks are Board of Public Utilities President Robert Hanna, who is white, and Monmouth County Superior Court Judge David Bauman, who is partially of Asian descent.
The Asian Pacific American Lawyers Association of New Jersey (APALA) applauded Christie for choosing Bauman, who would be the court’s first member of Asian lineage.
But the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey said the selections “represent the third time — the second in less than a year — that nominations to the highest court of the State failed to include a Latino candidate.”
The nominations “have been perceived by many as dismissive of the Latino community’s growth, contributions and influence in this State,” the Hispanic Bar said Monday. “Moreover, the unfortunate result of the Governor’s decision is that the [court] will most likely not have a Latino Justice until, at least, 2022,” when Justice Barry Albin reaches mandatory retirement age.
The association called it “imperative that the leaders of our State appoint individuals that proportionately reflect the residents of New Jersey in order to instill public trust in our government and the justice system,” noting that Hispanics make up the largest minority population in the state and “a large segment of attorneys and litigants.”
Roberto Rivera-Soto, who left the bench in 2011 for private practice, has been the court’s only Hispanic justice.
The Hispanic Bar noted it was not yet taking a position on the individual candidates’ qualifications.
APALA president Paul Yoon commended Christie “for nominating yet another highly qualified [Asian Pacific American] candidate to the State’s highest court.”
Last January, Christie nominated First Assistant Attorney General Phillip Kwon, a Korean-American, but that nomination faltered in March when questions arose over monetary transactions by a business owned by his family. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted him down last March in a 7-6 vote.
Yoon said Bauman’s confirmation “would advance diversity in a branch of government that does not today adequately reflect the entire constituency of New Jersey,” noting a growing Asian population statewide.
Bauman was born in 1956 in Japan to a Japanese mother and a U.S. Navy serviceman and was brought to the U.S. at age 3.
The Garden State Bar Association, New Jersey’s principal black lawyers group, has not weighed in on Christie’s selections but may do so by the year’s end. “I’m trying to be reserved and thoughtful in our response,” said its president, Fruqan Mouzon, a partner at Gibbons in Newark, in an interview.
Asked whether the association would prefer a black candidate to fill former Justice John Wallace Jr.’s seat, which has been vacant for two years, Mouzon said, “It’s not that simple, at least in my mind,” but he underscored the importance of diversity on the court.
The Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey also has not issued a statement. Its president, Lisa Hendricks Richardson, a Newark solo, did not return a reporter’s call.
Racial and ethnic diversity came late to New Jersey’s high court, and the continued scarcity of minorities has been a contentious issue. Not until 1994, the court’s 46th year of existence, was there appointed a black justice, James Coleman Jr.
In 2003, as Coleman neared mandatory retirement age, Gov. James McGreevey considered nominating as his replacement former public advocate Zulima Farber, who is black and also would have become the court’s first Hispanic justice. But her candidacy ended amid press reports that her failure to answer traffic-related charges had resulted in a bench warrant and a suspension of her driver’s license.
Coleman’s seat was taken over in 2003 by Wallace. The Hispanic Bar, which had been infuriated by the decision not to nominate Farber, pressed on for the first Hispanic justice to be appointed.
The next year, McGreevey named Rivera-Soto, replacing Peter Verniero, who did not seek appointment after his initial seven-year term ended.
Once Christie took office, those minority seats were no longer secure. Christie refused to reappoint Wallace in 2010, saying it was part of an effort to reshape a court that had exceeded its authority in ruling on issues such as school funding and affordable housing. He nominated Anne Patterson, a white woman, in Wallace’s stead.
The Garden State Bar president at the time, Gwendolyn Williams, called the move “disrespectful and disingenuous.” And the Hispanic Bar called it “troublesome because it undermines the great strides achieved and the significant efforts of many members of the legal profession and others … to diversify the New Jersey Judiciary.”
The Senate blocked advice and consent for Patterson’s nomination, for the length of the term Wallace would have held had he been reappointed.
When Rivera-Soto left the court in 2011 after his initial term, deciding not to seek reappointment, Christie made a fresh nomination of Patterson for that seat, which she now holds.
Meanwhile, Wallace’s seat remains unfilled (an appellate judge is temporarily assigned).
Last January, Christie nominated Bruce Harris, who is black as well as openly gay, but three months later the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected him in a party-line 7-6 vote, citing a lack of litigation experience.
The Senate Democratic leadership and the Legislative Black Caucus had come out against Harris. The caucus chairman, Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, said the nomination “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.”
Neither the Garden State Bar nor the Hispanic Bar took a position on the Kwon or Harris nominations.