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Judges don't have to contribute more for health care and pensions, N.J. Supreme Court rulesPrint Email >MaryAnn Spoto | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com By MaryAnn Spoto | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com The Star-Ledger
on July 24, 2012 at 12:57 PM, updated July 30, 2012 at 2:23 PM
TRENTON — A divided state Supreme Court today said judges and justices don’t have to chip in more for their pension and health benefits like other state workers because New Jersey’s constitution prevents them from having their pay cut.
The 3-2 decision drew swift responses from the leaders of New Jersey’s two other branches of government, which last year enacted a law requiring higher contributions from state workers.
Gov. Chris Christie called it a case of "liberal activist judges running amok" while Democrats who run the state Legislature said they may ask voters to change the state constitution to force judges to pay more.
The state’s bar association, however, called it a win for judicial independence, saying judges "will remain free from political retaliation when judges make an unpopular but just decision."
The highly anticipated decision, which affects most of the more than 375 Superior Court judges and Supreme Court justices who were on the bench when the law went into effect, strikes at a key component of Christie’s effort to trim spending on employee salaries and benefits and stabilize pension plans.
The court said making judges contribute more for their benefits constitutes a pay cut, and that the state constitution forbids the other branches from reducing judges’ salaries to make sure they are not punished for making unpopular decisions.
"Whatever good motivation the Legislature may have had when enacting (the law) with its broad application to all state public employees, the framers’ message is clear," the court said. "The constitution forbids the reduction of a justice or judge’s take-home salary during the term of his or her appointment."
Superior Court Judge Paul DePascale brought the challenge, saying his pension and health contributions would increase by more than five times after a seven-year phase-in.
The state argued health benefits and pensions are part of a total compensation package and should not be considered as salary. Judges’ pay averages $165,000.
But the majority of the justices said the terms "salary" and "compensation" were used interchangeably by the framers of the state Constitution and every time lawmakers imposed pension requirements on judges, it included a corresponding pay raise.
Speaking in Atlantic City today, Christie denounced the ruling. "This is typical of a liberal activist Supreme Court that knew what they wanted to do," he said. "They knew that they wanted to come to this result. So they just changed the meaning of words. That’s not what judges are supposed to do."
Gov. Christie responds to 3-2 decision by N.J. Supreme Court The state Supreme Court ruled New Jersey judges and justices do not have to pay more toward their pensions and health benefits. The new law, known as Chapter 78, which cuts the salaries for judges and justices, was deemed unconstitutional. Governor Chris Christie responds to the court's decision at Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City. (Video by Noah K. Murray/The Star-Ledger)
Lawmakers said they’ll try to combat the decision by asking voters to amend the state constitution. The deadline for the Legislature to to get it on this November’s ballot is Aug. 2.
"While I am disappointed in the court’s ruling, it will not be the final word on this issue," said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester). "The reforms we passed last year are essential to ensuring the health and viability of every one of the state’s pension systems."
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said the Supreme Court decision undermines lawmakers’ goals to reduce financial burdens on taxpayers and make workers’ pension plans solvent long-term.
"The Assembly will move swiftly to consider a constitutional amendment that will resolve the court’s legal concerns while enabling us to move forward with a fiscally responsible plan to shore up our pension systems," she said.
DePascale’s attorney, Justin Walder, said only the people — not the other branches — can change the constitution.
"Should the people choose to diminish the principle of judicial independence, it is their right to do so," he said. "Until that time, however, today’s ruling will continue to protect the judges and justices of this state from intimidation, undue influence or domination."John O'Boyle / The Star-Ledger Justice Barry Albin in a 2011 file photo. Albin was one of three justices that said a law that would diminish the pay of judges is unconstitutional.
The decision was made by a court that is short two justices because Christie and Senate Democrats are battling over appointments.
The three who said judges shouldn’t pay more were Barry Albin, a Democrat Christie sharply criticized last year after school funding arguments; Jaynee LaVecchia, an independent Democrats maintain is a Republican because she was a cabinet member for GOP governors; and Dorothea Wefing, a Republican appeals court judge called in because of the high court shortage.
The two dissenters were Republicans Helen Hoens, who is up for reappointment next year, and Anne Patterson, a recent Christie appointee. Both said health and pension benefits should not be considered as salary. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, a Democrat, recused himself from the case.
Star-Ledger staff writer Amy Brittain contributed to this report.
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