Christie Appoints Gay Man to State Supreme Court

Bruce A. Harris would become first out justice in New Jersey history

New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, has appointed that state’s first out gay Supreme Court justice.

According to the Newark Star-Ledger, Christie named Bruce A. Harris, the African-American gay mayor of Chatham Borough, and Phil Kwon, a Bergen County Asian-American who worked under the governor when he was US attorney, to fill two vacancies on the high court.

Chatham Borough is a community of about 9,000 that is west of Newark in Morris County, and Harris, a Republican, was elected mayor there less than three months ago. He first became a member of the Chatham Borough Council in 2004 and served as its president beginnning in 2007.

An attorney, Harris is of counsel at Greenberg Traurig, an international law firm, representing, according to the firm's website, “banks, specialty finance companies, and other lenders and borrowers in all aspects of commercial lending, asset-based lending, acquisition financing, and real estate financing.”

Harris earned his law degree at Yale and also has an MBA from Boston University.

In announcing the appointments, Christie said he aims to remake the court, which he blamed for hamstringing New Jersey government on issues such as school financing and affordable housing, the Star-Ledger reported.

Steven Goldstein, the chair of Garden State Equality (GSE), the state’s LGBT rights lobby, reacted with strong praise for the governor.

“When I met with Governor Christie in 2010 at his request, he told me that though we would differ on some issues like marriage equality, he viewed the LGBT community as an important part of New Jersey, and that he wanted his administration to have a good working relationship with Garden State Equality,” Goldstein said in an email message. “That has been the case every step of the way.”

With the strong support of the Legislature’s Democratic leadership, a marriage equality bill was reintroduced this month in Trenton, after failing to gain traction in the final days of the administration of Democratic Governor Jon Corzine in January 2010..

When the new bill was announced, Goldstein acknowledged that Christie, who favors the state’s existing civil union law over gay marriage, would veto the bill and that achieving a veto-proof majority was a tall order.

“He said he is going to veto it and we take him as his word,” Goldstein said of Christie. “We are not naïve. That’s not going to change.”

On the prospects for overriding such a veto, he said, “We are realistic.”

At the same time, Goldstein — whom Christie phoned just prior to announcing the court nominations — credited the governor with help on other critical GSE goals, a theme he reiterated in the wake of Harris’ nomination to the high court.

“The governor and his staff were invaluable in helping us pass the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, the nation’s strongest anti-bullying law that the governor signed in January 2011,” Goldstein said in his statement on the high court nominations.

The national Log Cabin Republicans saluted Christie's choice and held out hope the governor could be brought around on marriage equality.

“New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is the future of the Republican Party,” the group's executive director, R. Clarke Cooper, said in a written statement. “This appointment is consistent with Governor Christie's strong support for nondiscrimination, including signing the strongest anti-bullying legislation in the nation. As the New Jersey Legislature considers passing marriage equality this session, Log Cabin Republicans remain hopeful Governor Christie will continue his inclusive leadership by agreeing with Republican champions across the country that freedom means freedom for everybody.”

According to the Star-Ledger, Kwon, if confirmed, would become the State Supreme Court’s first Asian-American justice.

Harris and Kwan were nominated to fill vacancies left by Justice Virginia Long, who reaches the mandatory retirement age in March, and former Justice John Wallace Jr., whom Christie declined to renominate last year.

In 2006, when the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state must offer all the rights and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples either through marriage equality or a parallel institution such as civil unions, Long sided with a minority dissent that argued that only marriage would meet the constitutional requirement. Wallace voted with the majority.

Last year, when Lambda Legal asked the State Supreme Court to weigh evidence that civil unions did not deliver what the 2006 ruling mandated, all six sitting justices agreed that the issue would need to be litigated at the trial level to create a factual record, but Long voted with two other justices in arguing that the high court should hear arguments “to guide us on the best procedural course for creating such a record.”

The Lambda motion was dismissed without prejudice, and the legal advocacy group is currently advancing its case at the trial level.

Wallace was no longer on the court when the Lambda motion was heard.