Democratic state senators in New Jersey denied the nation's first gay, black, Republican mayor a chance to sit on the state's highest court, questioning his qualifications and ability to remain independent of the man who nominated him.
By a 7-6 vote, the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday afternoon against confirming Chatham Mayor Bruce Harris to the state Supreme Court. The vote followed a hearing in which Democratic senators attacked Harris' lack of courtroom experience as a public finance attorney and his announcement that he will recuse himself from any marriage-equality cases, based on his past advocacy on the issue. Harris is the second Supreme Court nominee of Gov. Chris Christie (R) to be defeated by the Senate Judiciary Committee this year.
"You have a great personal story. I admire your educational background," Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) said before discussing the fact that Harris never practiced in a courtroom during his 20-year legal career. "I still have a major problem with having chosen to recuse yourself on the issue of marriage equality."
Harris told senators that he would recuse himself because of an email to his local state legislators in 2009 urging a "yes" vote on the issue, and because he and his partner hosted a fundraiser for the issue. Harris denied Democratic allegations that he promised Christie, who has vetoed gay marriage in New Jersey, a recusal in order to receive the nomination.
"My decision to recuse myself on same-sex marriage only, was not a political calculus," Harris said during the nearly five-hour hearing. "I want to be clear. Each time I was interviewed by the governor's staff or the governor, same-sex marriage came up because I brought it up."
"I believe you would have been fair," Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair) said. "I believe your recusal was political in order to get the job."
Gill said that there are past instances of U.S. Supreme Court justices voting on cases involving issues they advocated personally, citing the civil rights works of Thurgood Marshall.
Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Bridgewater) told his colleagues that he believed justices need to recuse themselves, citing judicial rules.
Democrats questioned Harris on emails he's sent as Chatham mayor and councilman to state officials urging action on various issues, including pension and collective bargaining reform -- priorities for Christie. Harris said he would not recuse himself in those cases since he was writing on behalf of Chatham residents, not his own.
Harris' lack of trial work and legal writing was questioned, along with his failure to make partner in two large law firms. Harris explained that his research of the 1947 state constitutional convention showed that judges do not need to be versed in all areas of law. He also said that he wasn't interested in publishing scholarly articles, and that he had a chance to publish an article when he graduated from Yale Law School, but declined due to the time commitment involved.
Harris and partners at his old law firm of Riker Danzig said he did not become a partner there because the firm decided against naming a third partner in the public-finance practice, which later dissolved. James Lott, a Riker Danzig partner Harris named to serve as Chatham's part-time attorney, said Harris excelled at the firm. Harris is now counsel at Greenberg Traurig.
Republican largely defended Harris and noted his confirmation would be a vote against "judicial activism." Harris gained the support of one Democrat, Sen. Brian Stack of Union City, a close Christie ally. Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Red Bank) praised Harris for not being tied to Trenton.
"You've reached this not because of the political contacts or by serving under a governor but by your own excellence," she said.
During the hearing Harris said he and his partner have been active in Morris County Republican functions in his local government role. Christie is from Morris County. Republicans also stuck to praising Harris' background.
"It takes a great intellect to practice transactional law," Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R-Cedar Grove) said. "You are a decent, caring, committed lawyer. I don't say that condescendingly to a black, gay man. I say it lawyer-to-lawyer."
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