TRENTON – In a split decision, New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled that judges and justices cannot be required to contribute more towards their pension and health benefits because it would violate a provision in the state constitution.
To make sure that the judiciary would remain independent, New Jersey’s constitution prevents judges and justices from having their salary reduced while they serve. In a 3-2 decision, the state Supreme Court ruled that a pension and benefit reform law championed by Gov. Chris Christie represented an illegal reduction in judicial salaries.
Justices Anne Patterson and Helen Hoens said that health benefits and pension payments are not part of a judge’s salary in their dissenting opinion.
“The pension and healthcare reform law does not diminish judges’ salaries as cited in the state constitution,” said Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R- Union) after learning of the ruling. “Rather, it requires that judges’ contributions for their retirement benefits and healthcare keep up with the cost of providing them…. if it is the justices’ position that the law is unconstitutional then the state constitution is flawed and needs to be changed. Judges should not be insulated from economic reality by a dubious claim that paying their fair share for the richest benefits in state government is an impediment to judicial independence.”
“Today’s decision means the New Jersey Judiciary, among the most respected in the nation, will remain free from political retaliation when judges make an unpopular but just decision,” said New Jersey State Bar Association President Kevin P. McCann. “On its face, the case was about the paycheck a judge takes home, and the court rightly found that decreasing that amount resulted in a reduction in compensation. More importantly for the people of New Jersey, however, this case and this decision is about maintaining the integrity of the judiciary and confirming the right of every resident to resolve disputes in an independent court system, where experienced judges apply the law and the facts of the case objectively.”
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