Just six days after the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that judges are exempt from higher pension and benefit contributions, both houses of the legislature were called in this morning to rectify that.
They acted so swiftly because of an Aug. 6 deadline for getting a constitutional amendment onto this November’s ballot, and because many lawmakers are genuinely outraged that the judicial branch would exempt itself from new rules that apply to every other public worker.
Said Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), “amending our constitution to make judges pay more will not threaten the independence of our judiciary as long as we do not use it as a bat to strike at judicial decisions with which we disagree.”
The state constitution says judges cannot have their salaries reduced during their terms. The Supreme Court, in a 3 to 2 decision, interpreted that to mean they can’t have their take-home pay reduced.
One of the sponsors of today’s constitutional amendment, Sen. Sam Thompson (R-12), said salary and take-home pay are distinctly different and that the High Court majority was wrong.
“This was a self-serving decision,” said Thompson. “I can only conclude these people cannot understand plain English.”
The Senate passed the clarifying amendment 28 to 0. Then the Assembly passed it 61 to 3.
Other sponsors noted that judges have the sweetest pension deal in the state and that their pension system is grossly underfunded.
Sen. Shirley Turner (D-15) described the pension system as being “in the worst of health,” saying “judges need to swallow hard, and take their medicine, like every other employee in State of New Jersey.”
Members of both parties said if teachers, cops and state hospital orderlies have to pay more, so should judges.
“I have great respect for the Supreme Court justices,” said Republican assemblywoman Amy Handlin (R-13). Still, she said she felt “that not even the most distinguished judge can plausibly make an argument that it’s fair for the current situation to continue.”
There was some concern today that the language of the constitutional amendment is too loose and could allow future legislators and governors to reduce judicial take-home pay as punishment for t for unpopular decisions, but that got steamrolled by the eagerness of the elected branches to ask voters if they want nullify last week’s controversial ruling.
Reporting from the State House, Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron has the full story.