Senate Judiciary Committee deals loss to Christie as it votes down Kwon, 7-6

TRENTON – By a vote of 7-6, the state Senate Judiciary Committee this evening voted down the state Supreme Court nomination of First Assistant Attorney General Phil Kwon.

Although he tried, Gov. Chris Christie could not summon a second Democrat to join state Sen. Brian P. Stack (D-33) and five Republicans in voting aye to Kwon.

All voting yes, the Republican committee members fumed over the unsuccessful nomination in the lead up to the inevitable.

State Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-40) called the hearing a witch hunt and his colleagues agreed with him.

“I haven’t heard a scintilla of evidence to suggest Phillip Kwon isn’t qualified,” said O’Toole in the aftermath of questions concerning Kwon’s mother’s business finances. “It is an outrage, the spectacle that has taken place over the last two months. His reputation has been dragged through the mud. Are we establishing a new low?

“We haven’t had a hearing today. We’ve had a lynching,” O’Toole added, then objected as state Sen. Nia Gill (D-34) groaned, “This hasn’t been a lynching.”

“I can say what I want,” O’Toole said. “As an American I am so proud to be able to vote for Phil Kwon for associate justrice.”

State Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-13) said he was embarrassed for the institution of the Senate. 

“A spectacle,” the senator said, denouncing the day’s hearing.

State Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-39) associated himself with the remarks of O’Toole. 

“His public record has failed to implicate Phil Kwon with any wrong-doing,” said Cardinale who decried what he identified as the current court’s left wing ideological brand. 

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and his entourage camped on one side of the committee room as they waited for the final vote on Kwon. Christie Spokesman Mike Drewniak and other GOP partisans stood on the other side.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Phil Kwon is qualified to serve on the New Jersey Supreme Court,” said state Sen. Kip Bateman (R-16). “There is no question, if you look at Phillip Kwon’s educational background, his experience is really second to none. I’ve never seen a candidate treated like Mr. Kwon was today. He is probably more qualified than some of the judges sitting on the bench right now. What we’ve done today is we’ve done an injustrice to Mr. Kwon.”

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) explained her no vote, blaming the governor for promising to turn the Supreme Court upside down.

“We have to make sure we have a balanced court when they make these decisions for every child in the State of New Jersey,” she said. “We know we were given a nominee who was a Republican for most of his voting life. Why has the governor tried to present the nominee as an independent?”

Weinberg said she remains unconvinced Kwon doesn’t represent Christie’s best efforts to remake the court in his own image.

“I don’t think we got all the answers,” she said.

Stack said he believed Kwon’s testimony was honest and celebrated his record of public service.

“He could make a lot more money with the experience he has,” the senator said. 

Subbing for state Sen. Bob Smith (D-17), state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-14) said Kwon didn’t convince her when he said his mother made numerous cash deposits just below $10,000 without knowledge of federal anti-money laundering law.  State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-36) said he gave Kwon every benefit of the doubt but the nominee came up short.

“We have the ability to look at seven Supreme Court justices,” said Sarlo. “I don’t call them names. I respect what they do. Today we heard from a nominee who has a great background, and a great story to tell. …With regard to this whole structuring piece, I still believe there are significant open questions. We talked about it in closed session to protect the nominee. We just went back in private and talked about what documents were reviewed.”

State Sen. Nellie Pou (D-35) bemoaned the lack of transparency regarding financial information. 

Veteran state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-20) said Kwon couldn’t change his party affiliation by merely changing his party registration. He cited Christie’s attacks on justices whose opinions diverge from the governor’s political agenda.

Voting no, Gill said nominees from the attorney general’s office typically present conflicts. 

“I think it is imperative for the issues presented before the Supreme Court, from same-sex marriage, to affordable housing, to school funding, that the justice who sits on those cases cannot be part of the lawyers’ team or office that argued a position the year before,” said Gill, who said she opposed Chief Justice Stuart Rabner on the same philosophical grounds.

The vote count was tied when Chairman Nick Scutari (D-22) broke it by declaring his opposition to Kwon.

It apparently was the first time since 1947 that a high court nominee had been rejected.

Senate Judiciary Committee deals loss to Christie as it votes down Kwon, 7-6