As reported by nj.com, New Jersey voters will get the last word on whether state judges can be forced to pay more for their pensions and health care. A question on the November 6th ballot asks voters to amend the state constitution to allow a 2011 law to be applied to judges and Supreme Court justices. The law requires more money to be deducted from public workers’ salaries to help pay for benefits.
A Hudson County Superior Court judge challenged the law and won. The Supreme Court subsequently agreed that the law violated the State Constitution by effectively reducing judges’ salaries while they’re on the bench. The provision was meant to protect judges from the possibility of retribution by the executive or legislative branch for issuing decisions with which they disagreed.
Governor Chris Christie and members of the Legislature who supported the divisive pension and health benefits overhaul law derided the Court’s ruling. The Legislature approved a resolution placing the question before voters in November within days of the Supreme Court ruling, a rare showing of unanimity among the two parties, by the two chambers and between the two branches.
Opponents worry that the amendment will threaten judicial independence and leave judges vulnerable to financial retaliation for unpopular rulings. Others say the wording of the ballot question leaves open the possibility that judges could be singled out for salary and benefits cuts in the future.
Some of the State’s 462 judges are already paying the higher benefits contributions, either because they were hired after the law took effect or they were not covered under the constitutional provision. The law raises judges’ pension contribution from 3 percent of their salary to 12 percent by 2017. Most judges earn $165,000.
Christie and lawmakers argued at the time that higher benefits contributions were needed from workers to help keep the retirement and health care systems for teachers, police and firefighters, judges, and other public workers from going bankrupt. The systems continue to be underfunded by tens of billions of dollars, but Christie said Tuesday that pension contributions paid by local governments had shrunk by $116 million as a result of the changes enacted two years ago.
The increase was most dramatic for judges, who went from paying the smallest percentage of salary toward their pensions, to the highest percentage. Their pension fund had enough money at the time to meet just over half of its eventual obligations.