Christie judicial nominee rejected

Gov. Christie and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno introduce New Jersey Supreme Court nominees Phillip H. Kwon, far left, and Bruce A. Harris, far right, back in January. (AP Photo / Office of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie)

Read the final version in Friday's paper, here.

Updated at 7 p.m.

One of Gov. Christie's nominees to the New Jersey Supreme Court, Phillip Kwon, was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday evening in a stinging blow to the governor's agenda and an unprecedented check of the governor's power by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

I am now in Christie's outer office, awaiting a press conference in which the governor will react to the news. It is unclear when he will have to come up with another nominee.

Kwon had faced a full-day on the Democratic grill today, enduring a series of hot questions about his family's business practices and his past political affiliations. The questioning was so extensive that Christie’s other nominee, Bruce Harris, sat in the front row all day without being called to testify.

Kwon, the state’s first assistant attorney general who worked under Christie at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, choked up in an opening statement about how his immigrant parents brought him to New York from South Korea in 1973. But mostly he was poised and soft-spoken as he patiently answered questions about a federal investigation into a New York liquor store owned by his mother and wife.

“I have no involvement with the operation of the business or any aspect of its affairs,” Kwon testified.

That didn’t satisfy Democrats. Last month the Star-Ledger reported that the federal government filed civil charges detailing $2 million in allegedly illegal deposits into the Westchester County store’s bank accounts. No criminal charges were filed, and the family admitted no wrongdoing, but in a civil settlement the store forfeited nearly $160,000.

The bank deposits, made almost every business day over about a year, were all for slightly under $10,000 apiece. Banks must report transactions of more than $10,000 to law enforcement, and it is illegal to break large sums of money into smaller amounts because that can be done to launder money or avoid paying taxes.

“I’m looking at these deposits,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Middlesex), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “It’s always $9,000 and some strange other figure. Why was it always that amount?”

Over and over again, Kwon said that it became his mother’s “routine” to make deposits in that amount and that there were several reasons for this, including her concern about being robbed of larger sums. He added that both of his parents had been victims of robberies in the past.

“But that doesn't make any sense whatsoever,” Scutari said.

“Why would she ever come up with this after day after day, without someone advising her that the reporting requirement is triggered at $10,000?

Kwon said his mother made a “mistake” and was unaware of the reporting requirements.

Once questioning turned to how Kwon helped his family find an attorney, Christie’s friend and ally, Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R., Monmouth), interjected: “We haven’t had a question about his positions, a question about his judicial philosophy...This is a spectacle.”

Later, Kyrillos told Kwon: “You’re exactly the kind of person that people consumed with balance and lack of partisanship should want to have on the court.”

Another Republican, Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R., Bergen), added: “We’re taking the reputation of a public servant who has served for years making personal financial sacrifice...and dragging him down with this innuendo.”

Kwon would have become the first Asian American and immigrant on the state’s highest court. Democrats had besieged Christie to consider diversity in making his nominations to the court, particularly after he bucked precedent by choosing not to give tenure to Supreme Court Justice John Wallace, who is black.