PATERSON – Two Democratic lawmakers agree with Gov. Chris Christie’s call today that pension and benefit contribution hikes should apply equally to the judicial branch. But the two senior senators said – as they have in the past – Christie overstepped the bounds of judicial independence.
State Sens. Richard Codey (D-27), of Roseland, and Raymond Lesniak (D-20), of Elizabeth, said Christie and the state are right to appeal the Mercer County court decision extending constitutional protection to judges as it relates to increased benefit contributions.
“They’re no different than any other employee,” Codey said, and should be held to the same standard as clerks, carpenters, and cops.
“I think we have to be very careful when dealing with the Judiciary that we don’t convey the message that they’re not independent of the political branches of government,” Lesniak said. “On the other hand, they need to be part of the shared sacrifice of belt-tightening in this economy.”
Christie said he will pursue a constitutional amendment, if necessary; but Lesniak said that may be “overkill.”
“I’ve been very vocal about the governor trying to intimidate the judicial branch of government,” Lesniak said. “The consequences of that are very dangerous for us as a society.”
Christie broke with the longstanding tradition of granting tenure to Supreme Court justices by dismissing Associate Justice John Wallace last year; he berated the “tribunal of men in black robes” on the top court in his town halls; and by name he has disparaged several justices and judges, including Supreme Court Justice Barry Albin and, today, Mercer County Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg.
“There’s no reason to get personal,” Codey said. “You can respectfully disagree with the decision, as I do. There’s no reason for (personal attacks).”
Lesniak said the “short-term political gains” the governor is reaping are outweighed by the long-term erosion of independent justice. “If judges feel they have personal consequences (to their decisions),” Lesniak said, the result is “disastrous.”
Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-3), of West Deptford, had no immediate reaction to the governor’s comments, nor did a spokesperson for the judiciary.
Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan (D-20), of Union Township, said in a release, “Let’s be clear – no one has any sympathy for judicial pay, but every attorney, especially those who become governors and have the ability to appoint and reappoint judges and justices of the Supreme Court, has a responsibility to show respect for the judicial branch, even when they disagree with a ruling.
“It borders on the unethical for Gov. Christie to personally insult Judge Feinberg,” Cryan said. “It’s juvenile and unbecoming of the governor’s office and someone who was once U.S. attorney. No matter how one feels about the ruling, the governor’s lack of respect for the judicial process is chilling. He of course has the right to defend his law, but he should be above throwing a tantrum and disparaging someone else’s character if he doesn’t get his way.”
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, whose cooperation in getting the pension/benefits overhaul passed drew criticism from within her party, said today of Christie’s comments: “We are reviewing the judge’s decision and will respond when appropriate.”
Response from within Christie’s party was more in line with the governor’s call for action.
Sen. Diane Allen, (R-7), Edgewater Park, said, “For the Judiciary to claim it should be treated differently during this time of economic crisis and uncertainty threatens the solvency of the pension and health benefits system.”
She said she would sponsor the constitutional amendment in the upper chamber.