In 1967, when President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, Johnson said that it was "the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place."
Recently, Gov. Chris Christie announced two state Supreme Court appointments of his own.
Christie, in what he called a "compromise," nominated independent Robert Hanna, 56, of Morris County, the head of the Board of Public Utilities, and Republican Superior Court Judge David Bauman, also 56, of Monmouth County, to fill two vacancies on the seven-member Supreme Court. The compromise gesture came about because Christie has been at war with Democrats in the state Senate over judicial appointments for nearly the entirety of his term in office.
"These two nominees represent a political compromise on my part, a reaching out across the aisle to Democrats in order to get our court fully staffed in the way our constitution envisioned," Christie said.
The brouhaha over confirmations stemmed from a Christie power grab early in his term. Recognizing that the state Supreme Court constrains the other branches of government, Christie sought a less activist and more conservative court. So he broke historic precedent and refused to reappoint Justice John Wallace, the only African American on the court. This riled Democrats, who called on Christie to nominate diverse candidates.
Since that time, Christie has faced an uphill battle getting Democrats to confirm his court appointees. While the Democrat-controlled Senate did confirm justice Anne Patterson's nomination in 2011, it too broke with historic precedent and rejected two other Christie nominees: Philip Kwon, a Korean-American independent who had worked under Christie at the U.S. Attorney's Office, and Republican Bruce Harris, the mayor of Chatham, who is gay and African American.
Democrats took issue with Kwon because of family legal problems and argued that Harris lacked court experience.
Hanna is white. Bauman is half-Asian. His American father met his Japanese mother while was serving in the U.S. Navy in Japan. If confirmed, he would be the first Asian-American to serve on the state Supreme Court. But Christie missed an opportunity to make an even grander compromise gesture in failing to nominate an African American to the court.
Important in this situation is the political context.
Recall the outcome of the 2012 presidential election in which part of Republican Mitt Romney's loss can be chalked up to the failure of Republicans to have their message resonate with minority voters. Since that loss, Republicans nationally have done little to rectify their standing, selecting 19 white men to serve as committee chairs, and some members of the party have used divisive rhetoric dismissing the need to effectively court minority voters.
With Christie as an oft-talked-about potential 2016 presidential candidate, the failure to secure the appointment of an African American to the state Supreme Court will be scrutinized by a national media and constituency.
On the state level, Christie also had much to gain by nominating a qualified African American to the high court. Refusing to reappoint Wallace, and failing to replace him with another African American, has hurt Christie politically with some African Americans in New Jersey.
"As America is striving to become more diverse in all aspects, it's ironic that the New Jersey Supreme Court is becoming less diverse," retired state Supreme Court Justice John Coleman, an African American and Wallace's predecessor, said when Christie refused to reappoint Wallace.
When asked about failing to nominate an African American this time, Christie stated, "We had the chance to confirm an African American justice and they turned me down. They turned down an extraordinarily qualified African American justice who would have been the first gay justice."
But there are other extraordinarily qualified African American individuals who could have been nominated.
Because in 2012, in New Jersey, it is simply unimaginable that the state's highest court does not have a single African American member.
But it won't. And likely, it won't for at least another decade to come. That's because no sitting justice will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 until 2022.
There are all kinds of reasons why diversity on the court is important. People from diverse backgrounds are likely to bring different perspectives to the court. They are likely to have differing priorities. Diversity adds value to the process, and demographic representation increases governmental legitimacy.
But the real reason why Christie should have nominated an African American to the court is the same reason that President Johnson did. It is the right thing to do. The right time. And the right place.
Brigid Callahan Harrison, of Galloway Township, is a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University. This column originally appeared in The Record.