A Senate panel on Thursday rejected Gov. Chris Christie's nominee to the New Jersey Supreme Court, handing the Republican governor a rare political defeat.
The Democratic panel voted 7-6 against Phillip Kwon, who would have been the state's first Asian-American member of the high court if he had been confirmed. The Senate action also marked the first time in memory that a Supreme Court nominee has failed to win confirmation.
During a grueling daylong hearing that preceded the vote, Kwon was grilled about his political affiliation and involvement in a lawsuit against the family's liquor store.
Democrats who controlled the panel said they were not satisfied with Kwon's answers regarding the finances of his wife and his mother, who co-own the liquor store in Mount Vernon, N.Y.
Kwon's mother made 222 cash deposits from store proceeds just under $10,000, the amount that would trigger federal reporting. The family forfeited $160,000 to settle civil claims, and no one was charged criminally.
The 44-year-old Kwon would have been the first court member to have been born in a country outside the United States. Born in South Korea, Kwon settled in the U.S. with his parents when he was 6.
The former federal prosecutor who worked under Christie at the U.S. Attorney's Office said he was unaware of his mother's banking practices until someone at the bank notified her. Kwon testified that when he heard what she had been doing, he agreed the type of deposits she consistently made would "raise red flags."
Democrats said the Kwon family finances were co-mingled and his wife's salary pays a significant portion of the couple's mortgage on a $2.3 million house that they share with Kwon's parents. Several panel members said their questions were not thoroughly answered.
Republicans on the panel called the hearing a "witch hunt" and "lynch mob." Sen. Joseph Kyrillos of Monmouth County said he has rarely been so embarrassed as a senator.
But Democrats fought back, with Sen. Loretta Weinberg saying it is their job to question nominees to make sure they are qualified.
"We analyzed the nominee on his credentials and on his forthrightness," said Sen. Nick Scutari, who chaired the Judiciary Committee hearing. "The members of my committee took this very seriously. We were very thorough."
Scutari said Democrats were not supplied all the tax and financial documents they requested on Kwon. The governor's office accused Democrats of leaking the confidential documents they did receive.
Kwon also faced questions about his political affiliation. An independent, he had been a registered Republican for a dozen years before moving to New Jersey and changing his voting affiliation last year.
His political alliance was an issue because traditionally a political balance is maintained on the court with no more than four justices belonging to either party. Currently, two Democrats and two Republicans are on the court and there are two vacancies.
Christie counts the remaining justice, Jaynee LaVecchia as an independent, but Democrats say she is a Republican. Christie's other nominee, Bruce A. Harris, is a Republican.
"Partisan balance is important to maintain," said Scutari. "We cannot let the governor, through his nominations, to try to turn the court to a 5-2 balance."
Christie said this week that the court would be composed of three Republicans, two Democrats and two independents if his nominees were both confirmed.
Consideration of Harris was postponed Thursday. If he is confirmed, Harris would be the first openly gay member of the court and the only black member.