South Jersey goes begging on state high court

Phillip Kwon, one of Gov. Christie's nominees for the Supreme Court, was rejected. MEL EVANS / Associated Press
Phillip Kwon, one of Gov. Christie's nominees for the Supreme Court, was rejected. MEL EVANS / Associated Press (Phillip Kwon,)
Posted: April 01, 2012

Democrats demanded "diversity" from Republican Gov. Christie in picking two new justices for the New Jersey Supreme Court. And he obliged, several times over, checking off these diversity boxes with just two nominations: African American and gay; Korean American and immigrant.

One of those appointees, Chatham Mayor Bruce Harris, who is black, gay, and Republican, gets his first Senate hearing soon. But the other, Phillip Kwon, a Korean American immigrant who would have been the court's first justice of Asian descent, has been rejected by the Senate judiciary committee - thanks largely to questions over his family's business dealings - in an unprecedented rebuke of Christie.

That leaves Christie one more nomination. So, governor, what about a South Jerseyan? Of all the diversity points Christie earns for his first two nominees, there is no geographical diversity. Kwon and Harris are from North Jersey - and all five sitting justices live north of Trenton.

Since August, when Justice Roberto A. Rivera-Soto of Haddonfield stepped down, the state Supreme Court has lacked a justice from the eight counties in the lower half of the state.

The last such geographical vacancy was in 2003, when John Wallace of Gloucester County joined the court and ended a 32-year South Jersey drought, according to records from the state Administrative Office of the Courts. Albert E. Burling of Camden served from the time the modern court was established, in 1948, until 1960; shortly thereafter, Vincent S. Haneman of Brigantine sat until 1971.

So would a Supreme Court justice really rule differently if he or she lived in the cute Philadelphia suburb of Moorestown in Burlington County, or the cute New York suburb of Morristown in Morris County? Are people in Washington Township (Gloucester County) different from people in Washington Township (Bergen County)?

Would they not eat their Wawa hoagies one bite at a time, just like us?

Yes, but that doesn't mean it's right, South Jersey lawyers say.

"People in South Jersey feel pretty strongly about this," said Rutgers-Camden law professor Robert Williams, who believes the region should be represented on the court.

Roger Dennis, dean of Drexel University's law school and former dean of Rutgers-Camden's, said the lack of a southern justice was "odd."

There are local bar associations "and local pride and styles and types of practice, and if that wouldn't be reflected on the court, it is not a major loss - but a bit of a loss," Dennis said.

Turns out law is practiced differently in South Jersey. "It's done in a kindler, gentler style," Dennis said. "It's more like law used to be practiced, and North Jersey is more of a New York style of practice of law. There's a certain gentility to practicing in the courthouse in Woodbury as compared to Hackensack."

Justices from North Jersey also tend to hire clerks from North Jersey, lawyers say, depriving their southern counterparts of valuable training.

During three decades in the judicial desert before 2003, South Jersey complained about its exile. In 2000, South Jersey legislators held a Statehouse news conference to push unsuccessfully for a local nominee.

This time, there is little outcry. Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D., Camden), the highest-ranking South Jerseyan in the lower house, simply said, "Not only must we ensure that we have the best and brightest jurists administering justice, but we should strive to represent New Jersey's demographic and geographic realities."

But geography could soon become uniquely important. A potential case is brewing that has particular resonance in South Jersey. In fact, it's the talk of South Jersey.

Christie is determined to fold Rutgers-Camden (and its well-regarded law school) into Rowan University. Lawsuits have been threatened if he pursues this via executive power. Such suits could make their way to the state Supreme Court.

Rutgers-Camden is the epicenter of South Jersey's legal community. Lawyers use its law library. Legal functions are held there. If you didn't graduate from the school, one of your partners - or your adversary in the courtroom - did.

Moorestown lawyer Timothy Farrow, treasurer of Rutgers-Camden's alumni association and a foe of the merger, said the court's makeup could matter in a Rutgers-Rowan case.

"Someone down here is going to have, you would think, a different lens to view some of those facts, being much more familiar with South Jersey," he said.

So South Jersey awaits its justice. If it gets one, though, there's another fight to be fought: The last U.S. senator from South Jersey was Robert C. Hendrickson.

He left office in 1955.


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

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