In a blow to Christie, N.J. Senate panel rejects high court nominee

being questioned by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Democrats said they had serious misgivings about business dealings by Kwon's family. MEL EVANS / Associated Press
being questioned by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Democrats said they had serious misgivings about business dealings by Kwon's family. MEL EVANS / Associated Press (N.J. Supreme Court nominee Phillip Kwon)
Posted: March 23, 2012

TRENTON - In a blow to Gov. Christie's political agenda and an unprecedented check on his power, one of his nominees to the state Supreme Court was rejected by a Senate panel Thursday following a day of interrogation over his family's business dealings.

Phillip Kwon, a top official in the state Attorney General's Office who worked for Christie when the Republican governor was a U.S. attorney, watched from the front row of a hearing room as the Judiciary Committee voted, 7-6, not to approve him.

It was the first time a Christie nominee at any level - from sewer commission member on up - had been rejected by the Democratic-controlled Legislature, and the first time a judicial nominee was rejected since 1988. No Supreme Court nominee has ever failed to be confirmed.

Christie's choice for a second vacant seat on the court, Bruce Harris, waited for his turn to testify, but the proceedings lasted so long that the panel will reconvene later.

In a news conference shortly after the vote, Christie said he felt terrible for his friend, a "man of integrity" who he said had been treated "with disdain" by Democrats during a "shameful mockery of a hearing." All but one Democrat voted against Kwon; all Republicans voted in favor.

Christie theorized that Democrats needed to make amends with the unions that comprise their political base after party members voted last year for Christie's law to revamp the public employee health insurance and pension benefits. The unions opposed the changes, and some also opposed Kwon's nomination.

"Phil Kwon was sacrificed on the altar of payback to the NJEA [New Jersey Education Association], the CWA [Communications Workers of America] and the AFL-CIO," Christie said. "They all followed the union line like lemmings."

Democrats said they had serious misgivings about business dealings by Kwon's family and doubted Christie's claim that Kwon was politically independent.

The make-up of the Supreme Court has ramifications for many policies that affect New Jerseyans, from money to public schools and housing for the poor. Christie has vowed to remake the court, saying some of the members he inherited routinely overstepped the bounds of the judiciary.

At the beginning of the hearing, Kwon choked up as he spoke of his parents, who brought him to New York from South Korea in 1973. But mostly he was poised as he patiently answered questions about a federal investigation into a New York liquor store owned by his mother and wife.

"I have no involvement with the operation of the business or any aspect of its affairs," Kwon testified.

That didn't satisfy Democrats. Last month the Newark Star-Ledger reported that the federal government filed civil charges in 2011 related to $2 million in allegedly illegal bank deposits by the Westchester County store. No criminal charges were filed and the family admitted no wrongdoing, but the store forfeited nearly $160,000 in a settlement.

The bank deposits, made almost every business day for about a year, were each for slightly under $10,000. Banks must report transactions of more than $10,000 to law enforcement, and it is illegal to break large sums of money into smaller amounts because the practice may be intended to launder money or avoid paying taxes.

"It's always $9,000 and some strange other figure," said Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union), committee chairman. "Why was it always that amount?"

Over and over again, Kwon said it was his mother's "routine" to make deposits in that amount. There were several reasons, he said, including her concern about being robbed of larger sums. Both of his parents had been victims of robberies, he said.

"That doesn't make any sense whatsoever," Scutari responded. "Why would she ever come up with this figure . . . day after day after day, without someone advising her that the reporting requirement is triggered at $10,000?"

Kwon said his mother had made a mistake and was unaware of the reporting requirement.

Democrats also asked about a $2.3 million Bergen County home that Kwon and his parents bought in 2010. Kwon said the $1 million down payment was paid with proceeds from the sale of his parents' house in New York, but Scutari said the closing for that sale was four days after the settlement on the new property.

When questioning turned to whether Kwon helped his parents find an attorney in the matter involving the family's store, Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R., Monmouth), a Christie ally, interjected: "We haven't had a question about his positions, a question about his judicial philosophy. . . . This is a spectacle."

At the end of the hearing, which included less than a half-hour of Democratic questions related to Kwon's judicial views, Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R., Essex) declared, "We didn't have a hearing, we had a lynching."

If confirmed by the full Senate, Kwon would have become the first Asian American and first immigrant on the state's highest court. Democrats had besieged Christie to consider diversity in making his nominations, particularly after he bucked precedent by refusing to give tenure to Justice John Wallace, who is black.

The other major issue during Kwon's hearing were his political affiliations. The state has an unwritten rule that there should be a balance between political parties on the bench.

Christie said this balance would have been preserved with the appointments of Kwon, an independent, and Harris, a Republican. That would have brought the court to three Republicans, two Democrats, and two independents.

But, Democrats noted that Kwon was a registered Republican in New York before he moved to New Jersey.


Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355 or mkatz@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at www.philly.com/christiechronicles.

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