TRENTON – Gov. Chris Christie and the state Legislature overreached when they passed New Jersey’s landmark overhaul of pension and benefit contributions, according to the state’s highest court.
The state Supreme Court ruled today that judicial pensions for sitting judges are protected under the state Constitution. The 3-2 decision was handed down this morning after the administration was sued over the context of the landmark reform as it pertained to a judge’s salary.
The high court affirmed the lawsuit filed by Judge Paul DePascale of Hudson County. He argued the state Constitution strictly prohibits a judge’s salary from being reduced while he or she is a sitting judge.
“The issue before us is not whether justices and judges should contribute to their pension and health care insurance plans. They do. The issue is not whether the new law applies to justices and judges appointed after the date of the legislation’s enactment. It does. The issue is not whether any future judicial pay raise can be dedicated to increased pension and health care contributions by justices and judges. It may,” reads the majority decision.
“Rather, the issue is whether Chapter 78 violates the New Jersey Constitution by diminishing the salaries of justices and judges during the terms of their appointments. We conclude that it does.
“No court of last resort – including the United States Supreme Court – has upheld the constitutionality of legislation of this kind,” it continued.
The ruling was released shortly after 10 a.m. today. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner recused himself from the case, accoridng to the court documents.
Justices Jaynee LaVecchia and Barry Albin, and Judge Dorothea Wefing (temporarily assigned) ruled in the majority. Justices Anne Patterson and Helen Hoens dissented, saying in their opinions that health benefits and pension payments do not fall under the umbrella of salaries.
DePascale’s suit claimed 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 argued.
In March, Supreme Court justices questioned the state’s assistant attorney general, Robert Lougy, about whether there was any difference between compensation and salary. At the time of the hearing, Lougy likened compensation to a police officer’s overtime, saying it’s something they are paid for, but not part of their salary, he said.
DePascale’s attorney, Justin Walder, argued that forcing judges to pay more for their benefits fully equates to diminishing their salaries. He also argued before the Supreme Court that 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 in March. “It is a bedrock principle.”
The article of the state Constitution cited during the court proceedings 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.”
Most state judges pay about 3 percent of their salary. The new reforms would have required them to pay 12 percent over the course of a seven year phase-in period.
The decision is unlikely to catch the Christie administration off guard.
Last month during a town hall meeting in Readington, the governor joked with residents after he was prompted by an attendee to discuss pension and health benefit reform. Christie reiterated his position that all state workers should pay their fair share – including judges, he said.
“The judges are suing us,” Christie told the Readington crowd.
“I don’t know what the decision is going to be,” he said, getting a bit of a chuckle from the crowd. “But, I’m betting they’re going to find a way to get out of paying their fair share.”