By a 3 to 2 majority, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that making state judges pay more for their pensions and health coverage violates the state Constitution, specifically the clause that says judges’ salaries “shall not be diminished during the term of their appointment.”
The Attorney General’s Office, representing the governor and the legislature, had argued that “salary” and “benefits” are two separate categories.
But the majority interpreted the Pension and Benefits Reform Act of 2011 as basically reaching into the pockets of judges for an extra $17,000 per year.
“By barring the legislature and executive from diminishing the salaries of sitting justices and judges,” wrote the majority, “the framers [of the State Constitution] intended to prevent those branches from placing a choke-hold on the livelihood of jurists who might be required to oppose their actions.”
Justin Walder, who successfully argued the case on behalf of a superior court judge, says it’s all about preserving the independence of the judiciary. Judges shouldn’t be looking over their shoulders at the political branches, he said.
“Often, the judges or justices are called upon to determine disputes between the governor and the legislature, or between individuals versus the governor and the legislature,” Walder said. “They have to do it impartially.”
The decision applies only to judges appointed before July 2011. Newer judges will see their pension contribution rise from 3 percent of salary to 12 percent over seven years.
The ruling was criticized by political leaders of both parties and an architect of the bill.
“I wasn’t surprised. I’m very disappointed. When we did pension reform, we felt it was only fair for all employees of the state … to pay their fair share,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney. “The judicial pension system’s in the worst shape of all of them, so I intend to move quickly to act on a resolution to have it on the ballot for the people to vote on.”
Walder said he doesn’t believe the attempt is “ill conceived in any way by either the governor or the legislature, but they have to live — as we all must — within the parameters of the Constitution.”
The two dissenting voices on the Court were Republicans Helen Hoens and Anne Patterson. Whether this is the final word on the matter depends on whether the backers of pension reform, like Gov. Christie and Senate President Sweeney, ask voters to amend the state constitution to include the judges.
Michael Aron reports from Trenton.