By Robin Rieger
TRENTON, N.J. (CBS/AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie moved to diversify the state’s all-white Supreme Court on Monday by proposing two firsts: the nominations of an openly gay black man and a Korean-born law enforcer to fill two vacancies.
Christie announced the nominations at a Statehouse news conference attended by both nominees and their families. If confirmed, Bruce A. Harris would become New Jersey’s first openly gay justice, and Phillip H. Kwon would become its first Asian representative and the first person born outside the United States to be sworn in.
“I am proud to be standing here today to announce two historic nominations to the New Jersey State Supreme Court,” Christie said, expressing “extreme confidence in their records and respect for their intellect.”
The nominations require confirmation from the Senate.
Harris, 61, is the mayor of Chatham Borough in Morris County, a post Christie said he would give up if confirmed. He would be the third African-American to be seated on the court. His partner of 32 years, Marc Boisclair, attended the announcement.
“I also want to thank my partner Mark for his nearly 32 years of love and support,” said Harris.
“Bruce will join a historic group of justices across the country as the 7th openly gay State Supreme Court Justice if he is confirmed,” said New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Steven Goldstein, chairman of the state’s gay rights group, Garden State Equality, praised the choice. Goldstein said he was surprised by the announcement, but said the Christie administration has always treated gay community leaders with “warmth and responsiveness.”
Kwon, 44, works in the Attorney General’s Office and lives in Closter in Bergen County.
He has worked with Christie for a decade; he was deputy chief of the criminal division at the U.S. Attorney’s Office while Christie headed it. There he worked on corruption cases, including those of former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, former Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski.
He is a 1994 graduate of Rutgers University Law School and received his undergraduate degree in 1989 from Georgetown University. His wife and son attended the announcement.
“This is a deep honor for me and my family,” said Phillip Kwon.
“Not only do their different backgrounds and career paths bring distinctive and important perspectives to the court, Bruce and Phil also capture our states diversity,” said Christie.
We sampled opinions from residents.
“I think it’s about qualifications, not about sexual preference or race”, said Bob Gardiner of Lawrenceville.
“I think it’s very important, because it’s a melting pot. Everybody needs the same equality,” said Sheila Adams, of Trenton.
Christie has two vacancies to fill on the court as of March 1.
The current court, made up of five women and two men, all of whom are white.
However, New Jersey has one of the highest percentages of foreign-born residents in the nation, with about one of five residents being born outside the country, according to the U.S. Census.
Christie created a firestorm when he decided not to renominate the court’s only black member, Justice John Wallace, in 2010.
His nominee to replace Wallace, corporate lawyer Anne Patterson, was finally confirmed last year after waiting a year because the Senate refused to consider any high court nominee as a protest.
Like Patterson, Harris was once at the prestigious Morristown law firm of Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti.
The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a Washington D.C., group that supports political campaigns of gay candidates, said the first two gay
Supreme Court justices were both in Oregon. Rives Kistler was appointed to the bench in 2003 and elected to a full term the next year.
Virginia Linder was elected in 2006.
Victory Fund spokesman Dennis Dison said all four others have been sworn in since 2010. They are: Barbara Lenk in Massachusetts, Sabrina McKenna in Hawaii, Monica Marquez in Colorado and Beth Robinson in Vermont. Robinson was previously the leader of a statewide gay rights group, Vermont Freedom to Marry.
Dison said his group helped Harris last year in his mayoral campaign, and that he is one of the few openly gay black Republican mayors in the nation.
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)