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Black lawmakers oppose Chris Christie court pick

May 24, 2012 5:55:27 PM PDT
A group of black state legislators announced its opposition to Gov. Chris Christie's choice of a gay, black Republican for the Supreme Court on Thursday, mounting evidence that Democrats were ready to reject the second of the governor's high court picks.

The New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus told The Associated Press that attorney Bruce Harris's legal qualifications fall short of the high standard required of the court's seven justices. No blacks currently sit on the court.

"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," said Sen. Ron Rice, the caucus leader. "In a state with many distinguished African-American lawyers and judges, nothing could be further from the truth."

The Republican governor failed to reappoint the court's only black justice in 2010, touching off a firestorm among Democrats. Justice John Wallace had two years to go before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.

The governor nominated Harris, a 61-year-old Morris County mayor, and Phil Kwon, a 45-year-old with a top spot in the state attorney general's office, to fill two open court slots in January. Democrats rejected Kwon in March over ongoing concerns regarding cash deposits from a liquor store owned by his wife and mother. Kwon, who was born in South Korea and came to the United States when he was 6, would have been the first member of the court to be born outside the United States and its first Asian-American member.

Both nominees received the endorsement of the Rev. Reginald Jackson, a prominent black pastor, who in March said they "represented much-needed diversity" on the high court.

"Whether they are the best, only time will tell, are they qualified, no question they are," he wrote in an endorsement letter.

The black lawmakers oppose Harris's confirmation because of his lack of judicial and litigation experience and his failure to make partner at any law firm.

Christie has continued to defend his choice, however, saying Harris's experience is in line with that of the other justices. He has criticized Democrats for seemingly having their minds made up before the confirmation has begun.

"Democrats continue to malign Bruce Harris' credentials even when his background and experience stand alongside any of the members currently sitting on the Supreme Court," Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said. "The campaign to poison this nomination and attack Mr. Harris before he takes a single question is an embarrassment to the process and to the reputation and conduct of those charged with giving this man a fair hearing."

The caucus also expressed concern that Harris told the governor he would recuse himself from cases involving gay marriage, an issue for which Harris had advocated before being nominated. Harris, who has a degree from Yale Law School, lives with his partner of 32 years, Marc Boisclair.

Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, the group's second vice chair, said it's "inappropriate" for a potential judicial nominee to make promises on specific cases to the governor.

"It's doubly inappropriate to commit ahead of time to recuse oneself from a case based on one's race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation," she said. "Mr. Harris's promise on recusal sets a dangerous precedent and only emphasizes why he is not qualified for the job."

The group of 17 black lawmakers includes Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and other legislative leaders and veteran lawmakers.

Sen. Nick Scutari, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, last week told the AP Harris's confirmation was in doubt.

Democrats agreed to give the nominee a hearing on May 31. But Scutari told the AP he questioned whether Harris was "up to the job."

Sen. Ray Lesniak previously said he would not vote for the nominee because of his recusal promise to Christie on gay marriage cases.

Nominees need the approval of the Judiciary panel and the full Senate in order to be confirmed. Supreme Court justices serve for seven years, then can be reappointed for tenure to serve until age 70.

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