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3-23-12 Supreme Court Nominee turned down in Senate Judiciary hearing in Trenton yesterday
Asbury Park Press - Senate panel rejects Christie's Supreme Court nominee

NJ Spotlight - Democrats Reject Kwon Nomination . . . and Gov. Christie…Abbott v. Burke and Mount Laurel decisions figure large in six-hour confirmation hearing

 

NJ Spotlight -  Democrats Reject Kwon Nomination . . . and Gov. Christie…Abbott v. Burke and Mount Laurel decisions figure large in six-hour confirmation hearing

By John Mooney, March 23, 2012 in More Issues|Post a Comment

For a little over six hours yesterday, Phillip Kwon withstood a barrage of questions about his family, his finances, and, yes, even a few about his judicial philosophy in his Senate confirmation hearing to serve on the state's Supreme Court.

It was to no avail. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-6 along party lines to reject his nomination by Gov. Chris Christie, the first time the Senate has ever rejected a nomination to the court.

Yet to hear the comments both during and after the hearing, the rejection wasn't so much about Kwon's qualifications as it was about the control of the state's highest court and maybe some big decisions coming its way.

State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), one of the seven Democrats who voted against Kwon, said his opposition came down to the governor's openly trying to overturn such cases as Abbott v. Burke and Mount Laurel, the school funding and affordable housing decisions.

"It's about that and the governor on a case-by-case basis trying to rule the judiciary like he rules the Republicans in the legislature," he said after the hearing. "I think the governor's entire approach to the judiciary is very troubling. This is part and parcel to that.”

The governor, in an impromptu press conference in his outer office last night, did little to dispel that notion.

He first called the Democrats' rejection "political payback" at the behest of unions and special interests for his pension rollbacks and other reforms last year, although much of the Democratic leadership voted for those changes.

But when Christie was questioned as to whether it was also about him appointing two Republicans to the bench in Kwon and Bruce Harris, a second nominee yet to be heard, Christie invoked his right to do so.

"I have every right to have four Republicans on the court -- I won the election," he said. "Just as Gov. Corzine had every right to have four Democrats on the court."

And as much as Christie said that, yes, he hoped in those appointments that the court would reverse rulings like Abbott and Mount Laurel, he repeated that he sought no guarantees from those nominees nor received any.

"Every executive endeavors to appoint justices whom he or she believes will follow their political philosophies," Christie said. "But that roadway for executives is also littered with disappointment."

Not that state senators on both sides of the aisle didn't try to determine Kwon's preferences during a hearing that started in late morning and ended as the sky was darkening over the Statehouse.

Abbott was brought up yesterday as much, if not more, than any other case . That's understandable, given that the rulings over the past 20 years are still key to how New Jersey public schools are funded.

Christie has not hid that he thinks the court overstepped its bounds in ordering the massive funding of the state's neediest districts, one of the initial rulings that led to the state's income tax in 1976.

And Democrats yesterday jumped on Christie's comments, seeking to paint Kwon, an assistant Attorney General in Christie's administration, as a vehicle for that agenda.

In one of the first direct questions on the school funding case, state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) asked Kwon outright: "What discussions have you had about Abbott education funding with the governor or his representatives or outside individuals or groups? And if you have not discussed the issue, is there anything that would give the governor, or anyone else, the impression that you would revisit the case?"

Like to most questions on specific cases, Kwon didn't take the bait and said he had no discussions on Abbott or any other case with Christie or his staff. As for any impression he may have given of revisiting the case, Kwon said: "I don't know how anyone could get that impression from me."

It was a typical exchange, one that came up with Republicans as well. State Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen) is the Senate's longest-running critic of the Abbott decisions, at one point supporting a change in the state Constitution to get around them.

He sought to get Kwon's commitment that he would revisit the case, as well as others, in questioning him about the role of judicial precedence

Precedence is a "very important doctrine of jurisprudence," Kwon said. "It is an important doctrine to respect, but it is also not inviolate certainly. If it were, we wouldn't have Brown v. Board of Education."

Abbott came up in other ways as well. State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) was among several Democrats who said Kwon's work in the Attorney General's office would have potentially precluded him from hearing any new Abbott case, since the office argued for the state in the latest Abbott litigation.

She said she voted against Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, a former Attorney General, when he came up for confirmation for the same reason. Rabner has since recused himself from Abbott cases at least three times. Kwon said yesterday he would decide on a case by case basis, but Gill said that only adds uncertainty to the court in who is hearing what cases.

"I think it is imperative for issues presented before the Supreme Court -- from same-sex marriage to affordable housing to school funding -- that a justice can't be part of a lawyers' team or office that argued the case the year before," she said.

In the end, the rhetoric was in high pitch. The Republicans called the hearing everything from a circus to a character assassination to a "lynching," in the words of state Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R-Essex). The Democrats bristled at the accusations and maintained there were just too many questions unanswered.

Ultimately, Christie said he would go back to the list of potential candidates and come up with another one. He was unusually sedate, expressing his disappointment in no uncertain terms but with little of his infamous invective.

"Don't take from my demeanor that I am not upset," he said, closing a lengthy press conference. "But I have a job to do."

 

Asbury Park Press - Senate panel rejects Christie's Supreme Court nominee

11:56 PM, Mar. 22, 2012 |

Michael Symons  Statehouse Bureau

 

TRENTON — Democratic senators blocked one of Gov. Chris Christie’s nominees to the state Supreme Court after a bruising interview Thursday.

Phillip Kwon, 44, a former federal prosecutor now serving as second-in-command in the state Office of the Attorney General, was rejected by a 7-6 vote by the state Senate Judiciary Committee. One Democrat, Sen. Brian P. Stack, D-Hudson, voted for the nominee but the other seven turned him down.

The committee’s interview with Christie’s other nominee, Bruce Harris, was postponed until another date at Christie’s request.

In an evening news conference, Christie said Democrats pandered to key party constituencies who opposed Kwon and were angry at Democrats who had supported the governor’s pension and benefit reforms.

“They all voted the union line, like lemmings,” Christie said. “This was the payback. Phil Kwon was sacrificed on the altar of payback to the CWA and the NJEA and the AFL-CIO.

“You had the Senate president there the whole day, watching. And the union leaders there, watching. That’s what this was about.” Christie said. “What I said to Phil Kwon afterwards was, ‘You should not feel badly. There’s nothing you could have done differently. This cake was baked a long time ago. It wasn’t baked by us.’”

Kwon, who lives in Closter, would have been the first Asian-American on New Jersey’s Supreme Court. He was born in South Korea and arrived in the United States in 1973 at age 6.

Variety of concerns

Democrats cited a variety of concerns in the unprecedented rejection of the nominee, but the one that garnered the most attention was Kwon’s family finances.

“I have real questions about what took place here, and with all due respect I don’t think we got all the real answers,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, before voting no.

Kwon’s parents owned a liquor store in Mount Vernon, N.Y., for decades until Kwon’s father suffered a series of incapacitating strokes in 2009 that eventually cost him his eyesight. Half of the business is now owned by Kwon’s wife, Sung Hui “Chris” Kwon, a former Wall Street investment banker. Phillip Kwon said he has no involvement with the store and has never been its lawyer.

(Page 2 of 3)

 

When Kwon’s mother, Jin, took primary charge of the store’s finances, she would make daily bank deposits — typically larger than $9,000 in cash but smaller than $10,000. That is significant because $10,000 is the point at which a bank must report a currency transaction to federal regulators.

Kwon told lawmakers his mother didn’t know about the reporting trigger but felt uncomfortable carrying that much cash to the bank to make a deposit. On days when the store had more than $10,000 in cash receipts, particularly following a weekend, the balance would be held — apparently, at the Kwons’ former home in White Plains, N.Y. — and gradually deposited over a series of days.

“Her mindset was: If I get robbed, I’d rather lose $9,000 than $15,000,” said Kwon, who said both his parents had been robbery victims.

Kwon said his mother reported all of the store’s income on tax returns and wasn’t laundering money. But the pattern of deposits eventually raised red flags at TD Bank, which reported it to the government. Federal prosecutors in New York pursued a civil case against the store and seized around $300,000; it was eventually settled, with nearly half of the funds returned to Kwon’s mother.

Why she settled

Kwon said the settlement, in which no liability or criminality was admitted, made sense for his 69-year-old mother, though she didn’t want to forfeit any of the money, because she works every day, is the primary caretaker for her husband and didn’t want to endure the time and cost of a trial.

“My mother was not evading taxes. She made a mistake,” Kwon said.

Lawmakers battled over whether questions about Kwon’s family’s business are even relevant to a decision about whether he should be seated on the Supreme Court. Sen. Kevin J. O’Toole, R-Essex, called it a “lynching.”

“I was offended by this obsession with your family’s business, with your mother,” said Sen. Joseph M. Kyrillos Jr., R-Monmouth. “All of the people sitting here were elected to this office. I don’t remember any of us waging campaigns based on fathers or mothers. That’s not the American way.”

(Page 3 of 3)

 

Democrats said the questions are appropriate because Kwon helped his mother obtain legal representation, including the eventual hiring — at the suggestion a colleague, executive assistant attorney general Marc-Philip Ferzan — of Ferzan’s brother-in-law, John Carney, who negotiated the settlement. Kwon, Ferzan and Carney all worked for Christie at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

They also said the store’s finances are important because Kwon’s wife now owns 50 percent of it and his $2.3 million home in Closter was purchased in part with a $1 million down payment by Kwon’s parents, who also live there. His parents sold their New York home around the time they bought in New Jersey.

“We’re not just talking about legal acumen,” said Sen. Nia H. Gill, D-Essex, who said his decisions while a state prosecutor are legitimate to consider.

Demeanor praised

A number of senators complimented Kwon’s demeanor in the face of hours of sustained, intense questioning, particularly about his mother. Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Bergen, told him “You’re a better man than I am.”

“I don’t believe, and it was never my belief, that getting angry at somebody ... taking unreasonable positions was going to facilitate a resolution of those problems, and ultimately it’s the resolution of issues that we are here to do,” Kwon said.

Traditionally, the Supreme Court has had no more than four members of either political party. If Harris and Kwon were added, the court would have three Republicans, two Democrats and two independents – Jaynee LaVecchia, who worked for two GOP governors, and Kwon, who was a registered Republican in New York for over a decade until moving to New Jersey. Democrats say that’s tantamount to a 5-2 GOP majority.

Kwon said he registered as an independent at age 18, then affiliated with Republicans when he was thinking about getting politically active. He didn’t join any political organizations but didn’t change his affiliation until getting his New Jersey driver’s license in April 2011 — six months after that was required after he moved to the state in August 2010, Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari, D-Union, noted.

“How can we possibly accept you on the court as an independent, unaffiliated part of it, when the only party you’ve ever been affiliated with is the Republican Party?” Scutari asked….

Cont’d on p2, p3…at   app.com (under News – New Jersey News)

Michael Symons: msymons@njpressmedia.com
msymons@njpressmedia.com

 


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609-394-2828



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