As reported by nj.com, a divided State Supreme Court said judges and justices don’t have to chip in more for their pension and health benefits like other state workers because New Jersey’s Constitution prevents them from having their pay cut. The 3-2 decision drew swift responses from the leaders of New Jersey’s two other branches of government, which last year enacted a law requiring higher contributions from state workers.
Governor Chris Christie called it a case of “liberal activist judges running amok” while Democrats who run the state Legislature said they may ask voters to change the state constitution to force judges to pay more. The state’s bar association, however, called it a win for judicial independence, saying judges “will remain free from political retaliation when judges make an unpopular but just decision.”
The highly anticipated decision, which affects most of the more than 375 Superior Court judges and Supreme Court justices who were on the bench when the law went into effect, strikes at a key component of Christie’s effort to trim spending on employee salaries and benefits and stabilize pension plans.
The Court said making judges contribute more for their benefits constitutes a pay cut, and that the state Constitution forbids the other branches from reducing judges’ salaries to make sure they are not punished for making unpopular decisions. “Whatever good motivation the Legislature may have had when enacting (the law) with its broad application to all state public employees, the framers’ message is clear,” the Court said. “The constitution forbids the reduction of a justice or judge’s take-home salary during the term of his or her appointment.”
Superior Court Judge Paul DePascale brought the challenge, saying his pension and health contributions would increase by more than five times after a seven-year phase in. The State argued health benefits and pensions are part of a total compensation package and should not be considered as salary. But the majority of the justices said the terms “salary” and “compensation” were used interchangeably by the framers of the state Constitution and every time lawmakers imposed pension requirements on judges, it included a corresponding pay raise.
The decision was made by a Court that is short two justices because Christie and Senate Democrats are battling over appointments. The three who said judges shouldn’t pay more were Barry Albin, a Democrat Christie sharply criticized last year after school funding arguments; Jaynee LaVecchia, an independent Democrats maintain is a Republican because she was a cabinet member for GOP governors; and Dorothea Wefing, a Repulbican appeals court judge called in because of the high court shortage. The two dissenters were Republicans Helen Hoens, who is up for reappointment next year, and Anne Patterson, a recent Christie appointee. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, a Democrat, recused himself from the case.