Administration working overtime on Supreme Court nominees

The Christie administration is working overtime to ensure the votes are in place for the two latest nominees to the State Supreme Court.

Philip Kwon and Bruce Harris will come up before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, but both men could face a tough battle for confirmation. 

Two sources told PolitickerNJ.com that the front office this week attempted to get a head count of senators who plan to support Harris and Kwon.  At least one source said so far senators have been reluctant to commit.

The governor and members of his staff also scrambled Tuesday to blunt criticism that the two nominees will violate a longstanding but unwritten rule that no more than four justices from either party will sit on the court at one time.

Critics, including some Democratic lawmakers, contend that confirmation of both men would violate the judicial balance policy that has been adhered to since at least 1947.

Labor unions and progressive groups have been particularly vocal given Kwon’s voter registration history.  Before registering as an independent in New Jersey, Kwon, who would be the first Asian to ever sit on the Supreme Court, was registered for more than a decade in New York as a Republican.

Critics say the addition of Kwon would give the GOP five members on the court.  They include in their calculations Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, who also is a registered independent, but who worked in the administration of Republican Gov. Christie Whitman before being named to the court.

In a press conference, Gov. Chris Christie stood by the potential court make-up, saying Kwon is a true independent and would put the balance of the court at three Republicans, two Democrats and two independents.

“The partisan balance would be respected,” he said.

In a release, Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts reiterated the stance, adding that even if the administration concedes Kwon as a Republican, the court balance will still remain four, two and one.

“The simple facts are these:  Bruce Harris is a Republican and Phillip Kwon is an independent.  Their confirmation would provide a court with 3 Republican members, 2 Democrats and 2 Independents.  As the Governor noted at this morning’s press conference, even if you concede the fact of counting Kwon as a Republican – which we do not – that would still leave a court with a 4 Republican majority for just the 3rd time in the court’s history,” Roberts wrote.

But several groups have come out against the nominees, saying Christie should work to find a true independent to sit on the court. Democrats worry that having four Republicans and just two Democrats would put at risk policies fought for an won over a decade of Democratic rule in the legislature and governor’s mansion.

Both men have issues.  Harris is seen as inexperienced owing to his lack of court room time.  Kwon is facing questions over a business owned by his mother, which paid $160,000 to settle a civil complaint over more than $2 million that was deposited into a bank account in increments of slightly less than $10,000.  A pattern of deposits like that is known as structuring and is often used to move large sums of money undetected and can signal a pattern of money laundering.  

But it is likely to be the balance of the court and not the qualifications of the nominees that dominates backroom chatter among Democrats come Thursday.

The nominees received a shot in the arm this week when the seven-member Judicial Advisory Panel unanimously endorsed both men.

Previous coverage:

Party Balance likely to be largest hurdle in Supreme Court confirmations

"The governor still has to come to bat."
—Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, on Atlantic City.