Attorneys joust over judicial pensions, salaries

TRENTON – Increased pension contributions do not mean diminished salary.

But the constitutional protection against judicial salary cuts is necessary to protect that governmental branch’s independence.

Those were the opposite-ends-of-the-spectrum arguments today before the state Supreme Court regarding the case of a Superior Court judge challenging New Jersey’s landmark pension and benefit contribution reform.

Assistant Attorney General Robert Lougy spoke on behalf of the state for nearly an hour Monday morning, arguing that a judge’s salary and compensation are not mutually exclusive.

“The salary has not changed here,” said Lougy, referring to a Superior Court judge’s contention that Gov. Chris Christie and the state Legislature are illegally forcing him to take a salary cut by making him pay more into his pension and health care benefits.

The lawsuit was filed by Judge Paul DePascale of Hudson County. He argues the state Constitution strictly prohibits a judge’s salary from being reduced while he or she is a sitting judge.

DePascale’s suit claims that in response to the state’s landmark pension overhaul, his biweekly benefit deductions will increase from $126 to $698 over the next seven years. The increase subsequently reduces his salary, his lawsuit argues.

Supreme Court justices questioned the state’s assistant attorney general about whether there was any difference between compensation and salary.

Lougy later likened it to police overtime, explaining that an officer would get compensated for overtime, though it’s not part of the officer’s salary.

Most state judges pay about 3 percent of their salary. The new reforms will require them to pay 12 percent over the course of a seven year phase-in period.

“The question is once you give it during term of office, can you diminish it?” Justice Barry Albin asked Lougy.

DePascale’s attorney, Justin Walder, argued that forcing judges to pay more for their benefits fully equates to diminishing their salaries.

“The state’s position is plain incorrect,” he said. “It is clear that a deduction, whether it is direct or indirect, is prohibited.”

Walder also argued the exception in the state Constitution that specifically addresses judicial salaries is in place to protect the residents of the state.

“The public must be ensured that the jurists of this state will make their decision absent the possibility … of intimidation and retribution,” Walder said. “It is a bedrock principle.”

The article of the state Constitution cited this morning reads: “The justices of the Supreme Court … shall receive for their services such salaries as may be provided by law, which shall not be diminished during the term of their appointment.”

There are about a half million public employees in New Jersey. Judges and justices make up roughly 400 of those individuals, according to Lougy.

Earlier story:

DePascale case before high court

Attorneys joust over judicial pensions, salaries