BY KEVIN O’TOOLE As a proud member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I firmly believe the New Jersey Constitution empowers the Governor, “with the advice and consent of the Senate” to nominate qualified attorneys to the Supreme Court of New Jersey. In seeking to create an independent judiciary not subject to political whims, the drafters of the Constitution and people of New Jersey presumed that the Senate would conduct itself with dignity and statesmanship while professionally probing a nominees’ qualifications, intellect, demeanor, and judicial philosophy. And, for the first 65 years of our modern Constitution, that presumption bore true, as the Senate has carefully scrutinized the qualifications of all judicial nominees.
All of that changed back in February when for the first time in the history of the Senate, Mr. Kwon’s confidential questionnaire was released to the press. It concluded last Thursday with the spectacle that was Philip Kwon’s nomination hearing to be an Associate Justice to the State Supreme Court.
Let me begin with the sole question posed to the Judiciary Committee as part of its privilege to advise and consent on a judicial nomination: is Mr. Kwon qualified to serve on the Supreme Court? There is only one answer, as there was absolutely no dispute among the members of the Judiciary Committee that Mr. Kwon is qualified to serve on the Supreme Court of New Jersey. Throughout his career, Mr. Kwon served as a judicial law clerk to a federal judge, worked as an associate at an internationally renowned law firm, served for more than a decade at the United States Attorney’s Office where he was responsible for countless high-profile criminal convictions, and, most recently, was the First Assistant in the Office of the Attorney General. Judged against any standard, Mr. Kwon was a candidate of outstanding qualifications. And no Senator on the Judiciary Committee said otherwise.
Moreover, Mr. Kwon satisfied Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s call for diverse nominees to the Supreme Court. Mr. Kwon would have been the first immigrant in the modern history of the Supreme Court and the first Asian-American ever to sit on the Supreme Court. Indeed, Mr. Kwon would have been one of a mere handful of Asian American justices to sit on any state high court across the nation.
But his qualifications were of no moment at Thursday’s hearing. Neither were his intellect, demeanor, and judicial philosophy. Rather, the Judiciary Committee devolved into a character assassination of an unquestionably qualified, Asian American immigrant who received unanimous support from the Governor’s Judicial Advisory Panel, and accolades from lawyers throughout the State.
Rather than discuss Mr. Kwon’s qualifications, the Committee addressed irrelevant issues, like when he applied for his driver’s license. Rather than assess his intellect, the Committee surmised about his mother’s business affairs. Rather than gauge his demeanor, the Committee judged his living arrangements with his disabled father. Rather than probe his judicial philosophy, the Committee explored the political affiliation of a tenured member of the Supreme Court who, prior to and since her appointment, has always been considered an independent. Rather than perform its job, the Committee abdicated its Constitutional duty and tore a man’s reputation and integrity to shreds.
At the end of this spectacle, and through no fault of his own, Mr. Kwon became the first modern nominee to the Supreme Court to be rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee and left the Committee hearing with a reputation sullied by a political “game” orchestrated by Senate Democrats. But it was the people of New Jersey, who have come to rely on – indeed expect and are guaranteed – an independent judiciary, who walked away the losers from that shameful game.
Because of his qualifications, integrity, and, as demonstrated at his hearing, his firm resolve, I am confident that Mr. Kwon will go on to great things, continue to serve the State of New Jersey and its people to the best of his ability, and will do himself, his family, and the entire Korean-American community proud. He has nothing to be ashamed of, and I am proud of him today as I was when Governor Christie took the ground breaking step to nominate him.
But, the Senate Judiciary Committee, well, that’s a whole other story. All I can do is hope that my colleagues across the aisle have learned from their shameful conduct last week and put the petty, partisan politics behind them. Future nominees, and the residents of our state who elect us as their representatives to uphold the Constitution, deserve the respect and dignity that Mr. Kwon did, but was denied.
Kevin O’Toole is the state senator from the 40th District