TRENTON – Following Monday’s court ruling that prevents the state from making judges pay more towards their pensions and health benefits, Gov. Chris Christie said that he would seek an amendment to the state Constitution, if necessary, to have judges treated equally with other public employees who are being asked to make sacrifices.
“This is an egregious and self-serving decision that protects a small class of individuals who believe they deserve exclusive treatment,” said Christie. “I could not in good conscience stand by and watch hard-working state employees earning a fraction of a judge’s salary pay their fair share while the judiciary exempts itself while claiming special constitutional protection.”
Judge Linda Feinberg based her ruling on a provision in New Jersey’s Constitution that prevents the salaries of state justices and judges from being “diminished in any way” during their term of appointment.
“Clearly, plaintiff’s salary is being diminished — not by a tax imposed on all citizens of the state of New Jersey, but by legislative action that mandates higher pension and health-care contributions in contravention of the constitution of the state of New Jersey,” Feinberg wrote in her decision. “While the recently enacted legislation may be a response to the present economic conditions, nonetheless, it does not amend, nullify or otherwise negate the mandate of the New Jersey Constitution.”
Superior Court Judge Paul M. DePascale of Jersey City filed suit in July after New Jersey passed legislation to increase the amount that all public employees were required to contribute to their pensions and health benefits.
Blogger John Bury attacked the judge’s decision. “There are several questions this ruling brings to mind, including why judges can’t have their pay cut though other government employees can, but one stands out: What backwater judicial fiefdom would allow such self-dealing?,” he wrote.
New Jersey State Bar Association President Susan A. Feeney was critical of Christie’s stance. “The Governor’s continued attack on the Judiciary denigrates the separation of powers and the independence of the Judiciary as a separate branch of government,” she said.
According to the Governor’s office, judges of the Superior Court, the Appellate Division and the Supreme Court are among the highest paid employees of the state, receive the richest pension benefits and contribute the least amount in return for those lifetime benefits. The average annual pension benefit for new judicial retirees is $107,540. Yet, before reforms were enacted, judges paid the lowest contribution rate – 3 percent of salary – and made an average lifetime contribution of just $59,300 – paying for less than 10 percent of their retirement benefit. In contrast, prior to reforms, other public employees funded between 27 percent and 57 percent of their retirement benefit.
The Christie administration plans to appeal Feinberg’s ruling and if necessary, seek an amendment to the state Constitution.
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