June 1, 2012
By Jacob Combs
After a four-hour hearing, New Jersey Senate Democrats yesterday rejected the nomination of Bruce Harris, the gay, black, Republican mayor of Morris County, by a vote of 7 to 6. Harris is second nominee by Gov. Chris Christie to be rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee; the first was Phillip Kwon, who failed by the same margin. From the AP:
Democrats who control the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Harris’ lack of courtroom experience and vow to recuse himself from deciding gay marriage cases.
Harris says his prior support of gay marriage creates a perception that he would be biased on the issue.
The 61-year-old would have been the state’s third black justice and the court’s first openly gay jurist.
The seven-member Supreme Court is all-white with two vacancies.
In an editorial, the Newark Star-Ledger argued that Harris’s nomination was “a mistake,” saying that despite the fact that he is “a decent, intelligent man” and that he “would bring needed diversity to the court,” he was simply not qualified for the position:
Harris has been a successful lawyer, but not a distinguished one. He has never written a legal opinion.
He is a stranger to the working of a court, having never argued a case.
He has a narrow range of experience, working exclusively as a transactional attorney, mainly on bond deals. And while he has worked at two major firms, he has never made partner.
No one piece of that is a disqualifier. But put it together and it’s clear Harris is not among the best qualified lawyers the state has to offer for the Supreme Court.
Of course, politics played a large role in yesterday’s confirmation process: Democrats worry that Christie’s nomination of Harris was an attempt to end what has traditionally been a partisan balance on the state’s highest court. But there was a broader issue of principles at play as well, one that could have had a significant effect on marriage equality in the state. In his confirmation hearing, Harris testified that he would recuse himself from the marriage case that could end up at the Supreme Court, citing his concern that his past personal support for marriage would undermine any court decision upholding marriage that he signed on to.
But as both District Court Judge James Ware and the Ninth Circuit have ruled in the Prop 8 case in California, a gay or lesbian judge should be under no obligation to recuse him or herself from marriage equality cases; in fact, making such an argument undermines the American tradition of judicial impartiality. Once a judge puts on his or her robes, personal identities like sexual orientation, race, religion or creed should be immaterial to the judicial questions at hand. While it may seem that Democrats pounced on Harris’s words simply because they want a win at the Supreme Court when marriage equality comes up for a vote, Harris’s statement was in fact damaging to his own qualifications to sit on that court.
Not surprisingly, Gov. Christie is not happy now that two of his nominees have been rejected by the state Senate. Bruce Harris’s confirmation, though, it a reminder of just how important it is to have a judiciary that is not only diverse, but also impartial, and proudly so.