Justice Anne Patterson. Photo by Carmen Natale

The New Jersey Legislature has the authority to overturn executive branch rules if it believes those rules run counter to legislative intent, but lawmakers’ actions may be subject to limited judicial review, the state Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday.

In the ruling, the court said the Legislature acted within the scope of its authority when it chose to invalidate rules adopted under the administration of former Gov. Chris Christie by the state Civil Service Commission that would have allowed certain state employees to move from one job to another without having to take the civil service exam.

Justice Anne Patterson, writing for the court, said the Legislature’s actions were allowed under the 1992 passage of the voter-approved Legislative Review Clause.

“We find no procedural defect or constitutional infirmity in the legislature’s actions,” Patterson said.

The CSC rule changes—that would have permitted a practice commonly known as “job-banding”—defined certain job titles as “bands,” and allowed workers within a band to advance from one pay grade to another without taking a competitive exam. The CSC said the advancements were not promotions, which still require a competitive exam.

The Legislature declared the rule changes invalid, but the CSC adopted them nevertheless.

Unions representing state workers and the Legislature then challenged the rules in court. A three-judge Appellate Division panel upheld the Legislature’s decision in a published decision in December 2016.

The Legislature, in a series of complex procedural steps that required the approval of both houses, moved to invalidate the CSC job-banding rules. The Communications Workers of America, which represents the bulk of the state’s public-sector unionized employees, also had filed a challenge to the rules in Superior Court.

The Appellate Division said the Legislature acted properly.

The executive branch appealed, contending that the Legislature overstepped its authority in moving to invalidate the rules, and that there should be no judicial review on the issue.

On Wednesday, Patterson said the courts do indeed have a role in determining whether lawmakers act properly in invoking the Legislative Review Clause.

“We hold that a court may review the legislative invalidation of any agency rule or regulation pursuant to the Legislative Review Clause if (1) the legislature has not complied with the procedural requirements of the clause; (2) the legislature has incorrectly asserted that the challenged rule or regulation is inconsistent with [the intent of the legislation of the statute the legislature intended to implement], or (3) the legislature’s actions violates a protection afforded by any other provision of the New Jersey Constitution or a provision of the U.S. Constitution,” Patterson said.

In this case, Patterson said, the Legislature followed proper procedure, and its actions should be validated. At that point in the analysis, she said, the court should step aside.

“It is beyond dispute that when the voters approved the Legislative Review Clause, they expanded the legislative authority to nullify executive agency rules, if those rules contravene legislative intent,” Patterson said.

“It is equally clear that when the legislature exercises its authority to make laws, it is entitled to substantial deference in judicial review,” Patterson said.

Justices Jaynee LaVecchia and Lee Solomon concurred in the result but dissented in portions of the reasoning.

LaVecchia said the courts should assume a more deferential role toward the Legislature.

Solomon said the ruling improperly expands the role of the Legislature in allowing it to interfere with legitimate executive branch decisions.

The Legislature’s attorney, Leon Sokol, welcomed the ruling.

“The Legislature properly exercised its constitutional power to invalidate the job-banding rules,” said Sokol, of Cullen & Dykman in Hackensack.

The union’s lawyer, Annmarie Pinarski of Weissman & Mintz in Somerset, did not return a telephone call. The Attorney General’s Office, which represented the CSC, had no comment.