The NJ Supreme Court recently considered whether New Jersey judges could be forced to contribute more money towards their pension and health care coverage. The case invokes New Jersey constitutional law because the state’s constitution contains a previously untested and relatively unknown provision that prevents judges’ salaries from being decreased during their term.
Under Article VI of the New Jersey Constitution, “The Justices of the Supreme Court and the Judges of the Superior Court shall receive for their services such salaries as may be provided by law, which shall not be diminished during the term of their appointment.” The provision was intended to preserve the autonomy of judges and eliminate threats to reduce their salaries from lawmakers who opposed their decisions.
The pension reform law in question, the 2011 Pension and Health Care Benefit Act, would increase pension contributions and health care premiums for all state employees in an effort to bolster the state’s depleted pension system. In the past, the Legislature concurrently increased judges’ salaries to compensate for the additional deductions. This was not the case in 2011, prompting the instant New Jersey lawsuit brought by Superior Court Judge Paul DePascale.
DePascale argues that the increased contributions constitute a reduction in salary, which violates the state constitution. As reported by the New Jersey Law Journal, he claims that the deductions will “increase steadily and dramatically” during the next seven years, starting with an increase from $3,287 to $5,408 in 2011 for pension alone. By 2017, his pension deduction will grow to $18,137, he said.
Meanwhile, the State argues that pensions and health care are not considered “salary,” but rather “compensation.” As such, they can be increased without running afoul of the state Constitution. Attorneys for the State further maintain that the increased pension contributions do not offend the rationale behind the constitutional ban on altering judges’ salary—judicial independence—because the judges will ultimately recoup the funds when they draw from their pensions.
It is still unclear where the New Jersey Supreme Court will come down on this issue. If the law is deemed unconstitutional, Gov. Christie has called for a constitutional amendment to be placed on the November 2012 ballot. However, with Democrats in control of the legislature, that appears unlikely.