New Jersey’s Democratic Senators on Thursday blocked 7-6 the supreme court judge nominee Bruce Harris from taking the bench.
Being both black and gay, Harris’ nomination by Governor Christie had seen Christie praised in the media, though the shine quickly wore off once Harris announced that he planned to recuse himself from same-sex marriage cases so as to retain public confidence in his impartiality.
This and Harris’ lack of litigation experience saw the Senate Judiciary panel conclude that the Republican Chatham Borough mayor was unsuitable for the bench.
But under questioning, he acknowledged that there was little in the way of writing that senators could examine to evaluate his legal thinking. He had rarely even appeared in court, except, he said, to do some pro bono work on drunken-driving cases.
“I’m not going to try to pretend that I have experience in the court or that I’ve been a litigator,” Mr. Harris said. He argued, though, that he had a background in municipal government that none of the current justices have, which would serve the court well.
Mr. Harris said that given the “hype” around same-sex marriage, and polls showing the public divided on the issue, he wanted citizens to believe that he was making decisions impartially and that his past advocacy — he had sent an e-mail to legislators and held a fund-raiser to support legalization efforts — would not undermine that confidence.
Democratic legislators prodded Mr. Harris that if this is true he should also recuse himself from collective bargaining cases, which he had also campaigned on.
Mr. Harris attempted to draw distinctions between the two issues but Democratic senators remained unconvinced, implying that the only difference was that, unlike same-sex marriage, Governor Chris Christie didn’t entirely oppose collective bargaining talks.
Republican legislators attempted to sidestep this issue.
On the recusal issue, Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Somerset) came to Harris’ defense, saying a court ruling requires judges to recuse themselves on some matters.
But when Harris said he wasn’t aware of the ruling, Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) said she was even more troubled.
“That’s why your recusal is more disturbing — because you’re not a judge and you have already actively taken yourself out of the process,” Gill said. “Is your recusal political?”
Despite Republican senators trying to convince Democrats that a lack of litigation experience wasn’t necessarily a hindrance, they managed only to bring round one Democratic legislator to their way of thinking.
Governor Christie’s office has not directly commented on Thursday’s hearings, though he earlier rejected the accusations he had strategically placed Harris, saying in a statement that Democratic senators seemed to have thrown to the wind diversity and legal qualifications so they could play politics. Christie has long complained that the current crop of Supreme Court justices is too liberal.
Mr. Harris would have been the first openly gay black judge in New Jersey history.
Republican lawmakers in Virginia recently blocked a judge’s nomination on the sole grounds that he was a “gay activist.”