Judgment day for Christie

Gov. Christie and Bruce Harris at the news conference announcing his nomination earlier this year.. (Office of the Governor)

I am now sitting in Room 4 of the Statehouse annex, where Gov. Christie's Supreme Court nominee -- a gay African American Republican -- has a hearing before the Democrat-controlled Senate judiciary committee.

Harris is expected to be rejected for confirmation. This would be the second straight Christie nominee for the high court to be denied approval. When the Democrats cut down nominee Phillip Kwon back in March, it was the first time a governor's Supreme Court nominee had ever been rejected since the modern state constitution was approved in 1947.

So what happens if Dems block every nominee that the gov puts forward for the two open seats on the high court? I looked at that issue in today's paper:

TRENTON - Two months after Democrats rejected Gov. Christie's nominee for one of two vacant seats on the State Supreme Court - a historically unprecedented move that marked a major setback for his administration - the Republican is sending another nominee to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

And the votes aren't there to confirm this one, either, Democratic sources are saying.

If Christie can't muscle through the confirmation of Bruce Harris - a Yale Law graduate, an African American, and a gay Republican who plans to recuse himself on the issue of same-sex marriage - then what?

"This is all unprecedented," said Robert Williams, a Rutgers-Camden law professor who is an expert on the Supreme Court.

With a pair of seats open, the normally seven-member court would be short-staffed, and experts say its decisions may not carry the same weight in setting legal precedent.

The chief justice, according to the state constitution, may elevate the most senior appellate court judge to the high court for a period of time, or even for one case. Though only five are needed for a quorum, justices regularly recuse themselves on cases due to conflicts of interest, which requires an additional jurist to be called in.

Appellate Court Judge Dorothea O'C. Wefing is temporarily filling one vacancy now. But in October, a month after the court returns to session, she faces the mandatory retirement age of 70.

After Wefing, next in line to sit on the court is Judge Ariel Rodriguez, reportedly a Republican. If the chief justice chooses to temporarily fill the second seat, it would go to Judge Mary Catherine Cuff, who a source says is a Democrat.

Christie could make the political calculation that going with six justices, including Rodriguez as a short-term fill-in, might be better than nominating a Democrat as a permanent justice, which Democratic legislators say he is obligated to do to ensure balance on the bench.

The makeup of the court is crucial to the success of Christie's agenda, especially as cases may soon be heard on issues including affordable-housing mandates and education spending in poor districts.

It is gay marriage, however, that has dominated discussion in recent days. Christie recently vetoed a bill that would have legalized gay marriage, a cause that Harris has championed in the past. In 2009, he wrote a letter to his state senator advocating for passage of a bill that would have allowed same-sex marriage. At the time, Harris was a councilman in Chatham, Morris County. He is now mayor.

(Read the rest of the story, here).

One other point to note: Despite concerns from Democrats that Harris's legal resume is light -- and despite the notable lack of backing from African American interest groups -- the state Bar Association has reportedly given Harris the green light.

That's interesting because as I reported here last week, the Bar Association president told me that Christie's approach to the judiciary in the past has been "borderline unethical." So the Bar is no rubber stamp for Christie.