New Jersey voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly gave their assent to a constitutional amendment that allows sitting judges to be charged more for pension and health-care benefits.
According to a tally by the state Division of Elections, 83 percent of the 2.03 million votes cast were in favor of the measure.
The highest proportion was in Ocean County, where 85.2 percent voted yes, followed by Burlington, 85.1 percent, Gloucester, 84.7 percent, Hunterdon, 84.5 percent, and Camden, 84.1 percent.
The lowest, with 72.9 percent in favor, was Somerset, the only county where fewer than 80 percent voted yes.
The public endorsement of the amendment makes judges subject to the 2011 Pension and Health Care Benefit Act, which increased benefit contributions from all state workers.
It effectively upends a July 24 state Supreme Court’s ruling that found the law unconstitutional as applied to judges.
The court, in a suit filed by Hudson County Superior Court Judge Paul DePascale, found that the law impinged on art. 6, § 6, ¶ 6 of the state constitution, which provides that judges’ “salaries … shall not be diminished during the term of their appointment.”
The amendment, SCR-110/ACR-152, preserves the ban on salary reduction “except for deductions from such salaries for contributions, established by law from time to time, for pensions … health benefits, and other, similar benefits.”
Justin Walder of Walder Hayden & Brogan in Roseland, who represented DePascale, said the outcome was “no surprise.”
The public may not have been generally aware that New Jersey judges can’t earn outside income, aren’t lifetime appointees, don’t engage in collective bargaining and typically earn less than they’d be able to in private practice, he said.
“There’s really no existing organizations and the judges couldn’t speak up on it,” he added. “It’s disappointing that the issue was never fully articulated for the public’s consideration.”
New Jersey State Bar Association President Kevin McCann called the outcome “very disappointing” but agreed that it was expected.
“The only group that has really come out and supported [judges] was the State Bar,” said McCann, of Chance & McCann in Bridgeton. “It’s unfortunate that we didn’t get the message out in a better fashion.”
Shortly after enactment of the pension reform law, the State Bar called for its repeal as applied to judges, contending that it impinges on judicial independence and encourages judges to retire.
The impetus for a constitutional amendment began late last year, after Mercer County Assignment Judge Linda Feinberg, in DePascale’s suit, voided the statute’s applicability to judges and later declined to stay her ruling while the state appealed.
Gov. Chris Christie lambasted the ruling as self-interested and called for a constitutional amendment. Lawmakers began introducing resolutions, though they did not advance before the end of the legislative session weeks later. At least one bill proposed to jettison the no-diminution clause altogether.
In the meantime, the Supreme Court took direct certification of the appeal and in July affirmed Feinberg’s ruling in a 3-2 decision, DePascale v. New Jersey, A-34-11.
Justices Jaynee LaVecchia and Barry Albin, and Appellate Division Judge Dorothea Wefing said the law flouts the constitution, threatening judicial independence and integrity. The majority rejected the state’s position that the increased contributions amount to a salary deduction, not a salary reduction — calling that argument “a magical reformulation.”
Justices Anne Patterson dissented, joined by Justice Helen Hoens, noting the narrow definition of “salary.” The law can’t be called an attack on judges because it applies to more than 500,000 state workers, they said.
Christie and lawmakers from both parties called the decision a disappointment and renewed calls for an amendment. Legislators immediately began fast-tracking SCR-110/ACR-152.
Proponents said it was fair that judges be held to the same contribution requirements as other government employees and pointed to the state of the judiciary’s pension fund, the Judicial Retirement System. With $305.2 million in assets and $585.7 million in liabilities, the JRS is just 52.1 percent funded, the worst ratio of the public-employee pension funds, according to Treasury data as of July 2011.
The measure met with no resistance at a brief public hearing, and on July 30 — six days after the court’s ruling — garnered near-unanimous approval in both houses. Only three nay votes were cast, all in the Assembly.
The measure needed approval at least three months prior to the Nov. 6 election in order to make the ballot, so it passed with a just a week to spare.
At least one survey indicated that the proposition would do well. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released a month ago found that 70 percent of 619 likely voters supported the amendment, with 18 percent opposed and 12 percent undecided.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak declined comment on Tuesday.
The pension reform law, which took effect July 1, 2011, phases in public workers’ contribution increases over seven years. Health-care contributions for judges would be doubled and pension contributions increased fourfold, effectively reducing take-home pay by $17,000 a year, a more than 10 percent hit for most judiciary members. (State judges are paid $165,000 a year; assignment judges, $171,131, appellate judges, $175,534, associate justices, $185,482; and the chief justice, $192,795.)
The law was the first contribution increase passed that wasn’t accompanied or preceded by a judicial salary increase. Benefit deductions required for the first time in 1982 (3 percent) were offset by $15,000 salary hikes. Pay raises also accompanied new contribution requirements in 1965, 1996 and 2007.
David Gialanella is a reporter for the New Jersey Law Journal, a Legal affiliate.