While virtually all of the discussion about Chatham Borough Mayor Bruce Harris’ nomination to the state Supreme Court has focused on his qualifications, privately some Democrats say his fate hinges as much on his Republican voter registration as it does on his resume.
If confirmed to the court, Harris would be one of six justices currently seated. The administration of Gov. Chris Christie contends that his confirmation would put the court makeup at three Republicans, two Democrats and an independent.
To date, Christie has not named another nominee to replace Phil Kwon, who was shot down by the Senate Judiciary Committee in March.
The seventh Justice, should the impasse over nominees become a prolonged standoff, would be fill-in appellate Judge Dorothea Wefing, a Republican, putting the court at four Republicans, two Democrats and an independent.
But as they have all along, Democrats dispute that Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, who was appointed by Gov. Christie Whitman, is truly an independent. That dispute raged throughout Kwon’s confirmation process as the administration pointed to several LaVecchia rulings as proof she has no GOP allegiance and Democrats cited her ties to two Republican administrations and campaign donations to Republican candidates as proof of her partisanship.
The dispute promises to continue as Christie seeks to shepherd Harris through the nomination process and find a replacement for Kwon.
If LaVecchia is a Republican as Democrats contend, the court stands at a four to two balance – five to two if Wefing is seated.
That breakdown is untenable for Democrats who say a five to two court – or even a four, two, one court- would put in jeopardy several victories the party earned through the courts, most notably the Mt. Laurel affordable housing decision and the various Abbott school funding cases.
Christie has publicly stated his intention to see those cases overturned, Democrats say, and is working to stack the court in his favor.
And there is another dynamic at play Democrats say. If they approve Harris, an openly gay Republican, who by most accounts is a moderate, Christie has little incentive to play ball on the second candidate. With Wefing on the court, the governor maintains the four, two, one balance – five to two from the Democrats point of view –he’s seeking without compromising anything.
And though Wefing faces mandatory retirement this fall, her replacement if one is needed would likely be Judge Ariel Rodriguez, the next ranking appellate judge, who also is a Republican.
Rodriguez doesn’t face mandatory retirement until 2017.
The dynamic leaves Democrats torn, one source familiar with their thinking said, over whether to support Harris, who may be the most moderate choice they’ll get from the Christie administration, or reject him in hopes of forcing Christie to nominate a Democrat first.
Democrats have openly dismissed Harris as unqualified for the court, even as Christie has sought to bolster his credentials by releasing several endorsements.
Last week, the Star Ledger reported that the state bar association had given Harris their stamp, but still Democrats say the Chatham Mayor, who has no trial experience and is not a partner in his law firm, is not qualified.
Like Kwon, who was voted down last month, Harris may end up as collateral damage in an ongoing war between the governor and the legislature.
Democrats have quietly crowed over a series of setbacks for the governor, which include Kwon’s rejection, recent revenue figures that they say cast doubt on the governor’s “Jersey Comeback” story line and a controversial plan for the state’s higher education system that has become mired in parochial mudslinging.
Adding another ding to the governor’s armor, some Democrats say, can’t hurt, particularly as Christie may end up as the key note speaker at this summer’s Republican National Convention, further upping his national profile.