TRENTON – Yesterday evening, the state Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Gov. Chris Christie’s nomination of First Assistant Attorney General Phil Kwon to the state Supreme Court by a vote of 7-6. If approved, Kwon would have been the state’s first Asian-American justice.
The governor expressed disappointment over the outcome.
“After years of public service to his state and to his country, Phil Kwon was treated not with respect today but with disdain… this process has been nothing more than a partisan sideshow since the very beginning,” Christie said, adding that his nominee was turned into a political sacrifice.
Democrat Brian P. Stack joined with the five Republican members of the committee to support Kwon’s nomination.
A hearing for Christie’s other state Supreme Court nominee, Bruce Harris, the mayor of Chatham, was postponed.
Democrats raised questions about a New York liquor store owned by Kwon’s mother that settled a federal lawsuit last year over alleged financial practices of illegally structuring deposits in a way that could be used to avoid Internal Revenue Service scrutiny. Kwon was not named in the suit, and the business did not admit any liability.
“I explained to her that making deposits in this way probably raised red flags with the bank,” Kwon told the committee. “She was not attempting to launder funds or evade taxes. She made a mistake because she didn’t know the reporting requirements.”
The Republican members of the committee took issue with this line of questioning.
“Today, Democratic Senators on the Judiciary Committee rejected an exceptionally well-qualified Supreme Court nominee for no good reason whatsoever,” Senate Republican Judiciary Committee Members Gerald Cardinale, Kevin O’Toole, Joe Kyrillos, Christopher Bateman, and Michael J. Doherty said in a statement.
“The Majority’s entire line of questioning and basis for rejecting his nomination centered on events that had absolutely nothing to do with Phil Kwon. In short, Phil Kwon was railroaded out of sheer partisan animosity toward the governor. Theirs was a rejection seeking a reason. Faced with a nominee whom there was no rational basis to reject, the Majority decided to create one based on the actions of others for which he bears no legal, ethical, or personal responsibility.”
“We analyzed the nominee on his credentials and on his forthrightness,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Nick Scutari (D-Union). “The members of my committee took this very seriously. We were very thorough.”
Democrats also expressed concerns about the political balance of the court. The governor contends that there would have been three Republicans, two Democrats and two independents serving on the court if both his nominees were confirmed. He counted Kwon as in independent even though he had been a registered Republican for years before moving to New Jersey. Christie also considers Justice Jaynee LaVecchia an independent, even though Democrats say she is a Republican.
“Partisan balance is important to maintain,” Scutari said. “We cannot let the governor, through his nominations, to try to turn the court to a 5-2 balance.”
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