NJ gov defends Supreme Court nominees

| 15 Feb 2012 | 11:32

    TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie found himself on the defense Monday over his two Supreme Court picks just a week after announcing that he was moving to diversify New Jersey's all-white Supreme Court by nominating two firsts: an openly gay black man and an immigrant. Christie said Bruce Harris, who is gay, told the governor he would recuse himself from hearing any gay marriage cases because the nominee, a former Chatum Borough mayor, has advocated for the issue. Years ago, Harris, 61, wrote to several state senators asking for their support of a same-sex marriage bill being heard by the Senate in late 2009. Christie, a Republican who supports civil unions but opposes calling it marriage, said Harris volunteered the information about his writing. "He told me he favored same-sex marriage, had advocated for it in his political capacity and as a result, if he were confirmed to the court, would recuse himself from that matter because he did not want there to be the appearance of bias," the governor recalled. According to a copy of the mail, obtained by The Star-Ledger of Newark, Harris wrote: "When I hear someone say that they believe marriage is only between a man and a woman because that's the way it's always been, I think of the many 'traditions' that deprived people of their civil rights for centuries: prohibitions on interracial marriage, slavery, (which is even provided for in the Bible), segregation, the subservience of women, to name just a few of these 'traditions.'" Harris is a Republican whose partner of 32 years stood next to him as the governor introduced Harris as a nominee. Christie, who is Catholic, has said he will veto a bill to legalize gay marriage, which both houses of the Legislature are considering. Gay marriage advocate Steven Goldstein, the chairman of Garden State Equality, has praised Christie for selecting more diverse nominees but declined to comment on Harris' decision to recuse himself from gay marriage cases, saying it would be inappropriate since the group supports a case that may soon come back before the court. On Monday, Christie disclosed that he is aware of a federal civil case involving the family of his other Supreme Court nominee, South Korean-born Phillip Kwon, the court's first foreign-born nominee. In June, the government seized $290,000 in bank accounts connected to KCP Wines & Liquor Corp., of Mount Vernon, N.Y., a liquor store owned by Kwon's mother and wife. In a civil lawsuit, first reported by The Star-Ledger of Newark, the government accused the business of breaking up cash deposits to avoid increased government scrutiny. Specifically, the government said the business made 222 deposits slightly under $10,000, a threshold that triggers increased scrutiny, between April 2010 to February 2011. Depositing money under the threshold to avoid detection, a process known as "structuring," can be prosecuted criminally and is often seen in money-laundering cases. It can also be handled in civil court, as was done in the Kwons case. Neither Kwon nor his family members were accused of criminal wrongdoing. "It doesn't involve Phil in the least," Christie said of the federal civil case. "I have complete confidence in Phil and his integrity." The business settled with the government on the reporting matter, agreeing to forfeit $160,000 of the $290,000 the government seized when it filed the case in June. "Every dime of bank deposits came from sales from the store and were reported to the IRS. There was nothing illegal or improper about the source of the deposits. The taxes on the store's sales were fully paid," said George Stamboulidis, an attorney for the Kwons. Stamboulidis said Phillip Kwon had no ownership interest in the store and wasn't involved in the case. Kwon declined to directly comment on the case. The 44-year-old Kwon is a first assistant state attorney general who previously worked for Christie at the U.S. attorney's office, where Christie actively went after structuring cases.