There were high hopes when New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie nominated Bruce Harris for a vacancy on the State Supreme Court in January. Harris would have made history as only the third Black to serve on the court. The 61-year-old corporate lawyer also would have become the court’s first openly gay justice—and the nation’s first Black openly gay state supreme court justice.
Gay rights organizations initially welcomed the nomination—especially because it came less than one week after the governor’s veto of marriage equality legislation. Democrats should have loved that, right?
Wrong. Harris’ nomination crashed and burned last Thursday as he was voted down by the Senate Judiciary Committee … after the state's entire Black legislative caucus went on the record to oppose him. What happened?
Politicians, strategists and activists point to a series of “red flags” in interviews with EBONY—such as having zero courtroom experience, no history working with civil rights groups and pre-emptively vowing to recuse himself from any cases concerning gay rights.
Also: Harris is a Black gay Republican. He had been recently elected mayor of Chatham Borough in November—a small, wealthy and virtually all-white town—and became the nation’s first Black openly gay Republican mayor.
“I was surprised that Christie found a Black gay Republican,” the Rev. Kevin E. Taylor told EBONY. Taylor is the openly gay senior pastor of Unity Fellowship Church of New Brunswick and a board member of Garden State Equality, the state’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights organization. “That was Christie trying to claim that he isn’t homophobic or racist. ‘See? I have a Black gay friend who is a wealthy bond lawyer.’”
“I’ve been in the New Jersey civil rights community for over 35 years and have never heard Bruce Harris’ name,” James A. Harris—no relation to the nominee— told EBONY. Harris is president of the New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP. “We have 41 chapters and none of us ever heard of him. It reminded us of [U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Clarence Thomas.”
Another red flag: Harris’ complete lack of litigation experience. He primarily worked on lending and public finance transactions, but has failed to make partner and has zero courtroom experience. “The nomination sent the wrong message, that we could only achiever diversity by lowering the bar,” New Jersey Sen. Ronald L. Rice told EBONY. Rice is the chairman of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus. “That was disturbing because we have many qualified and distinguished Black judges and lawyers in New Jersey.”
The Republican governor infuriated Democrats and minorities in May 2010 by replacing veteran Justice John Wallace—at that time the court's only Black justice—with a White Republican. That was the first time in the court’s history that a justice has not been re-nominated.
Less than one week before Harris’ doomed confirmation hearings, the entire Black caucus went on the record to oppose Harris. “Harris indicated that as a gay man, he would recuse himself from gay issues and marriage equality,” Rice told EBONY. “Would he also recuse himself from cases involving African-Americans? It’s a dangerous precedent.”
Rice was one of two senate Democrats to oppose the marriage bill in February. But the majority of the group of 17 Black lawmakers—including Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and Sen. Nia Gill—are longtime leaders in the state's push for equal marriage. Gill questioned Harris’ eagerness to recuse himself from the pending marriage case. “You have already actively taken yourself out of the process,” Gill said during last week’s hearing, reports the Star-Ledger. “Is your recusal political?”
“Bruce Harris was even more cynical appointment than Clarence Thomas,” Rev. Taylor told EBONY. “A Black man who votes against most of the Black community. A gay man who won’t vote on the most pressing gay rights case of our time.”
“The gay establishment latched on to this nomination very quickly. They saw he was gay, so they were excited,” Darnell Moore told EBONY. Moore is former chair of Newark’s LGBTQ Advisory Commission. “But the big issue in New Jersey right now is school funding. It’s critical to the Black community. But most reporters didn’t interview Black folks or certainly not any Black gay folks. We would have told them.”
Christie opposes the court-mandated formula that funds urban school districts. That opposition—as well as the Republican governor’s reluctance to direct funding to inner cities such as Newark or Camden—could have been the motives behind the ill-fated Harris nomination.
“The state supreme court will consider cases on affordable housing, racial profiling and funding for urban schools,” said NJ NAACP’s James Harris. “Christie nominates a Black, gay Republican man with a white partner who lives in a wealthy community? Christie was being disrespectful to Blacks and poor people. We were convinced that Mr. Harris would support the governor on school funding.”
After the senate’s failure to confirm Harris and another nominee, there are now two vacancies on the all-white New Jersey Supreme Court. What’s next? “I wouldn’t be surprised if Christie nominates two white Republicans,” laughed Rev. Kevin E. Taylor. “He can always say, ‘I tried.’ ”
Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News and NBC, and his writing has appeared in EBONY, The Advocate, Out.com, NPR and many others. Check out his award winning site Rod 2.0. Follow him on Twitter: @RodMcCullom.