Inquirer Editorial: Nod to diversity now doesn't make up for past

Gov. Christie and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno introduce New Jersey Supreme Court nominees Phillip H. Kwon, far left, and Bruce A. Harris, far right.
Gov. Christie and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno introduce New Jersey Supreme Court nominees Phillip H. Kwon, far left, and Bruce A. Harris, far right. (AP PHOTO / Governor's Office)
Posted: January 28, 2012

It's good to see Gov. Christie consider diversity in making his nominations to the New Jersey Supreme Court. But that hardly makes up for the way he treated John E. Wallace, an esteemed jurist and the court's only black justice, who deserved another term.

Christie made a historic and bold move with two nominations this week - Bruce Harris, an openly gay African American, and Phillip Kwon, who would become a Korean American on the court if confirmed.

Both men are lawyers. Harris, a Republican, is the mayor of Chatham in North Jersey. Kwon, who hasn't registered a party affiliation, is an assistant state attorney general.

Neither nominee has prior experience as a judge, but neither did most of the current justices on the state's highest court, which has become a tradition for New Jersey.

Christie has vowed to reshape the Supreme Court with conservatives and end what he has called its "judicial activism." But he has provided no evidence that either Harris or Kwon would issue opinions more to his liking. That makes it even more appalling that Christie refused to reappoint Wallace in 2010, who was by almost any standard a moderate on the court.

In fact, Wallace wasn't even on the state Supreme Court years ago when it made the landmark decisions in housing and education cases that Christie cited as being too liberal.

"My expectation is I've nominated two justices who understand the appropriate role of the courts in our system of government," Christie said.

Under pressure from Democrats to consider diversity in making his nominations, Christie is now demanding swift confirmation hearings.

But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari says he won't move too hastily, which is good. Too little is known about Harris and Kwon. The governor has a right to choose nominees who adhere to his judicial philosophy, but rigorous hearings are needed to determine their character and temperament.

Whatever his political motivation in nominating Harris and Kwon, Christie does deserve praise for the nod to diversity. The court also made history last year when another Christie appointee, Anne Patterson, was confirmed, giving the court a female majority for the first time in its history.

Gay-rights advocates are praising Harris' nomination, even though it appears to have had no impact on Christie's continuing opposition to same-sex marriage legislation, which he has promised to veto, saying voters should decide the issue in a referendum.

The court, too, must decide important issues in the coming months. Thoughtful jurists who won't be bound by unyielding philosophies will be needed to revisit landmark cases on school funding and affordable housing.

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