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Nominations Come Before Historic Senate Hearing [AUDIO]

Governor Chris Christie
Governor's Office

Yesterday, Governor Chris Christie today made two nominations to the New Jersey State Supreme Court. It would be history making for the state if both are confirmed.

Bruce Harris is the recently elected Mayor of Chatham and a lawyer with over 20 years of legal experience. Phillip Kwon is a First Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Law and Public Safety and former Deputy Chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Criminal Division.

If confirmed, Harris will become the third African-American to serve on the State Supreme Court and the first openly gay member of the Court and Kwon will become the first Asian-American to serve on the Supreme Court and the first immigrant to serve since the 1947 Constitution created the Court. Justice Anne Paterson, nominated by Governor Christie and confirmed, created the first female majority in the history of the Supreme Court, one of only five in the nation.

“I am extraordinarily proud to announce these two historic nominations to the New Jersey State Supreme Court,” says Christie. “Bruce and Phil are each accomplished and talented individuals with skilled legal minds who are highly respected in the legal community. Just as importantly, each of them has demonstrated a remarkable commitment to serving their state and communities. Additionally, not only do their different backgrounds and career paths bring distinctive and important perspectives to the Supreme Court, Bruce and Phil also capture our state’s diversity in a way never before seen in the history of the Court.”

Six openly gay justices sit on state Supreme Courts nationwide. Garden State Equality chairman Steven Goldstein praised the choice. The gay rights leader acknowledged he was very surprised by the announcement but said the Christie administration has always treated gay community leaders with “warmth and responsiveness.”

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. The Governor created a firestorm when he decided not to re-nominate the court’s only black member, Justice John Wallace, in 2010. The nominations need confirmation from the Democrat-controlled Senate.

“As with all nominees, the process must still run its course,” says State Senate President Steve Sweeney. “While we undergo that process, it is vital that we ensure the Court remain as philosophically independent as possible. I look forward to a full and proper vetting of these nominees and to learning of how they view their role on the Court.”

Today, The State Senate Judiciary Committee will consider a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in New Jersey. Yesterday, Christie was asked if his nomination of an openly gay man for the State Supreme Court reflects a softening in his stance on gay marriage. The Governor is opposed to gay marriage and has said he’s, “Not a fan.”

“When appropriate I will talk about the Marriage Equality bill,” said Christie yesterday. “Right now all it is is a bill like hundreds of bills that are pending in the legislature right now. When and if it shows some momentum I’ll talk about it some more, but let’s be clear, you know I’ve been pretty clear on this topic all the way through and I think those of you who’ve gotten to know me over time know that I’m not somebody who changes position with the grace of a ballerina so, I wouldn’t be all atwitter in expectation.”

Any doubts that the Democrat-controlled legislature would make good on a promise to fast-track a bill to legalize gay marriage in New Jersey can now be put to rest. Today, the State Senate Judiciary Committee will consider a marriage equality in what is expected to be a long and loud hearing.

Sweeney is one of the bill’s sponsors. He says, “It should get through Judiciary and it will be voted on in the very first meeting that we (the full Senate) have in February.”

Many are concerned that there are not the needed 21 votes to pass the bill in the Upper House next month, but Sweeney’s worried, “As the Senate President I can tell it is going to pass.”

Townsquare Media News first reported that legalizing gay marriage in New Jersey is a top priority and it will be put on the fast-track in 2012. Leading Democratic lawmakers made it official with a press conference earlier this month.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora said when formally introducing the bill he co-sponsors, “Now more than ever we have broad support particularly from the State Senate President, Streve Sweeney and the (Assembly) Speaker Sheila Oliver…..In the end, it shouldn’t be a political issue. This is a recognition that same-sex couples have the same right to legal recognition of marriage as heterosexuals.”

Designating the same-sex marriage legislation as S-1 has real significance because it sends the message that the measure is the top issue. The co-sponsors are Senate Democratic Leader Loretta Weinberg, State Senator Ray Lesniak and State Senate President Steve Sweeney. Sweeney wants, “to right a wrong.” Gusciora’s bill is designated A-1.

A little over two years ago, a gay marriage bill failed in the Upper House. Then-Majority Leader Sweeney did not cast a vote at all. He has since said publicly, “That was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in government and I couldn’t live with myself after that.”

Garden State Equality chairman and CEO, Steven Goldstein says, “We are simply elated that Senate President Steve Sweeney is not only a supporter of marriage equality now, he’s leading the way on the new marriage equality bill.”

Democrats say that in 2009 and 2010 they failed because they didn’t frame their argument well enough. They insist that this time around they will explain that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue, not a political issue or a religious issue. Then-Governor Jon Corzine said he would’ve signed the bill into law if the legislature would’ve passed it.

Governor Chris Christie is on record saying he’s, “not a fan” of same-sex marriage and he wouldn’t support it. Sweeney says, “We’re not asking for the Governor’s permission and we’re not backing down or backing off.” He’s hopeful Christie will read the bill and understand it as a civil rights issue and feels if that happens he would see it makes no sense for him to block it.

“We think it has enough votes to pass,” says Goldstein. “Do we think the Governor will veto it? Of course the Governor is going to veto it, but let’s take one step at a time….For right now we’re looking to pass the bill and when that happens that in itself will be tremendous progress to the marriage equality movement in New Jersey.”

Christie campaigned earlier this month in New Hampshire for GOP Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney who openly opposes gay marriage, but supports ‘partnership agreements.’ The New Hampshire legislature is expected to vote soon whether to repeal a 2009 gay marriage law. Romney recently told a voter there that he supports the repeal effort. “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” he told the voter, who turned out to be a gay veteran.

Gusciora says, “There’s a commitment from leadership of both houses to move this early, get this out of the way and continue on with job creating measures in the state.”

Confidence is high within the Democratic Party that there are enough votes to pass the legislation in both houses possibly with bi-partisan support. They hope Republican members will support the bill because they claim (but cannot confirm) that nationally, not one legislator has ever lost a seat after voting “yes” for same-sex marriage.

The proposed measure is permissive in that it doesn’t require churches to perform gay weddings if they are opposed to them. They would not be required to rent out their facilities for such events either.

Many people feel Christie will not sign a same-sex marriage bill if one passes the legislature and lands on his desk. Widespread opinion is that he would veto such a measure, but there is a third option. Christie doesn’t have what is called “pocket veto” authority. If he simply ignores the bill for 45 days it would automatically become law. Christie would not be on record as supporting or rejecting the legislation.

If the measure passes the legislature and Christie does veto it, it would take 27 Senators and 54 Assembly members to override that veto. That means 3 GOP Senators and 5 GOP Assembly members would have to defy the Republican Governor. Democrats claim to believe that’s not impossible.

New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont are the only six states that currently allow same-sex marriage. It’s also legal in the District of Columbia.

A member of the Garden State’s congressional delegation is also tackling the issue at the federal level.

“When the civil right of marriage equality is fully recognized here in New Jersey, New Jersey’s star will shine a little brighter,” says Representative Rush Holt. “I say, ‘when’ not ‘if.’ This is going to happen. The sooner it happens the sooner we will sweep away this inequality.”

Holt explains what needs to be done by him and his like-minded colleagues in Washington to ensure every state doesn’t have to go through the legislative process. He says, “We have to clear away the so-called ‘Defense of Marriage Act,’ so that marriages will be recognized from state to state to state.”

A statewide poll released late last week revealed that a majority of Garden state residents support the Marriage Equality bill.

Mickey Carroll, the Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute says gay marriage wins heavy support. He explains, “52 to 42- the first time it’s ever gone over the halfway mark, and up from a negative – last time Quinnipiac did it- 46 to- 49 – in November…however the demographic divisions on the question are quite substantial.”

Carroll says, “Republicans – they’re opposed – 59 to 35 – Democrats are for it – 62 to 33…also, men- yeah, 49 to 44, they’re for gay marriage – women – heavily – 55 to 40 …and when it comes to the question of supporting gay marriage, whites and blacks – white voters for it – 55 to 39 – black voters against it – 51 to 45.”

He points out that, “A lot of supporters say is this a civil rights issue – but black voters apparently think that it’s a moral issue.”

Carroll adds, “When we ask people who go regularly – weekly – to some sort of religious service – 58 to 36 – they oppose gay marriage…people who don’t go regularly- 61 to 33- they’re in favor.”

He says, “Being against it is like being against the sun coming up in the east – the numbers are for it – and if you’re against it – perfectly fine moral decision if you feel like it – the Quinnipiac numbers say that you’re on the losing side…it’s a big issue in New Jersey – the democrats are going to make it a big issue- Governor Christie is being a little bit more ambiguous than the past -we’ll see what happens.”

On related issues, New Jersey voter opinions are 65 – 32 percent that same-sex marriage is not a threat to traditional marriage; 53 – 45 percent that denying same-sex marriage is discrimination; 69 – 26 percent support for New Jersey’s same-sex civil union law; 66 – 29 percent support allowing same-sex couples to adopt children.

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