Tuesday, July 24, 2012

NJ Supreme Court Blocks Law Increasing Judges Pension and Health Benefit Contributions

New Jersey, like most states, responded to the protracted recession by cutting expenses.  The Democrat-controlled legislature, spurred by the voluble Governor Chris Christie, increased pension and health benefit contributions for all public employees. When the Assignment Judge in Trenton  accepted a state constitutional challenge by a sitting trial judge Christie erupted.  He denounced it as a self-serving act by "432 cliquey judges".  The State Supreme Court certified the appeal, bypassing the Appellate Division.  Now by a 3-2 vote (with Chief Justice Stuart Rabner abstaining) the court in DePascale v. State of New Jersey, has upheld the challenge, relying on the 1947 Constitution which says that a judge's salary shall not be "diminished":

Chapter 78 increases the amount that all public employees must contribute to their pension and health care insurance plans.  That law does not discriminate between justices and judges and other public employees, but the State Constitution does.  The Framers of the Constitution prohibited the Legislature from diminishing the salaries of sitting justices and judges -- not other public employees.  The Framers did so to protect the independence of the judiciary and to ensure that it remained a separate and equal -- not subordinate -- branch of government.  
The Framers recognized the unique role that the judiciary plays in our tripartite form of government.  Because one of the core functions of the judiciary is to serve as the guardian of the fundamental rights of the people -- rights nshrined in the Constitution -- the judiciary, at times, must restrain legislative initiatives or executive actions that may threaten those rights and violate the Constitution.  By barring the 4Legislature and executive from diminishing the salaries of sitting justices and judges, the Framers intended to prevent those branches from placing a chokehold on the livelihood of jurists who might be required to oppose their actions.  The constitutional restraint on diminishing judicial salaries is not for the benefit of judges, but for the benefit of the public.  

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