As reported by nj.com, in a case that could affect the NJ Supreme Court itself, a state judge tried to stop Governor Chris Christie from increasing the cost of pensions and health care benefits for judges and justices. Taking the case directly from the lower court, the Supreme Court will decide whether a new law requiring judges and justices to make larger contributions reduces their salaries, which is prohibited by the state constitution.
The state contends pension and health benefits are part of an overall compensation package for all public employees and that the increased contributions do not reduce the judicial salaries. “This is a deduction, not a reduction in pay,” Assistant Attorney General Robert Lougy, who represented the state, said.
The state has contended health benefits and pensions are part of an overall compensation package that includes salary. But Superior Court Judge Paul DePascale, who filed the suit, contends there is no difference between a salary and compensation, and the deductions result in a cut in pay.
When the state constitution was drafted in 1947, it included a provision preventing the salaries of judges and justices from being “diminished” in an attempt to protect them from political interference from the legislative and executive branches.
Lougy, questioned by Justice Barry Albin, agreed an across-the-board salary cut for all employees would violate the constitution as it applies to judges and justices. But Lougy did not agree higher pension and health benefits contributions is a violation. DePascale said past increases in contribution for judges and justices had always been accompanied by a corresponding pay increase, a recognition that the Legislature knew the larger contributions amounted to a pay cut.
Five of the seven justices weighed in on the matter. There is currently one vacancy on the Court and Chief Justice Stuart Rabner recused himself. The court did not set a date for issuing a decision. Although the outcome of the case will affect the justices, there is case law that allows them to hear the matter when there is no other appropriate court.
Judges currently contribute 1.5 percent of their salaries toward their health care benefits. The new law requires them to pay 35 percent of the premium cost. DePascale has said that would more than double his contribution toward health benefits to $5,230.86.