The question of whether Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature can order judges to pay 9 percent more toward their pensions is expected to be heard by the New Jersey Supreme Court March 26. The justices will hear arguments in a case brought by Superior Court Judge Paul DePascale of Hudson County.
Under the law DePascale’s pension deductions jumped by $14849 by 2017 when he would be paying $418137 into the pension system he said in court filings. DePascale who earns $165000 a year said his contribution for health benefits would more than double to $5230.86. The increased deductions were scheduled to take effect Oct. 14. Judicial salaries set by law range from $165000 for Superior Court trial judges including DePascale to $192795 for Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. DePascale also argued that the cut in salaries threatened judicial independence.
Pathway to the Supreme Court
A group of 80 tenured judges across the state filed suit back in July of last year over the recent pension and benefits reforms passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Christie in late June (Governor Signs Pension and Benefit Legislation into Law June 28 June 28 2011). Superior Court Assignment Judge Linda Feinberg ruled back in October of last year that Superior Court judges and Supreme Court justices were protected by the state Constitution from salary reductions while in office and were therefore exempt from new pension and health benefits changes requiring them to contribute a larger share of their salary.
State law allows judges to hear cases that directly affect them when there is no other appropriate court to address the matter. The case did not go to U.S. District Court because it does not involve any federal allegations.
Feinberg concluded in her October decision that the increased contributions required of judges and almost 700000 current and retired state employees is an indirect reduction in pay that the Constitution specifically forbids for judges and justices. Feinberg also rejected the state’s contention that the increase is similar to a tax and is not discriminatory because it applies to all state employees.
“Quite simply the salaries of New Jersey justices and judges during their term of appointment may not be diminished in any way for any purpose” Feinberg wrote in a 59-page decision. “Clearly plaintiff’s salary is being diminished – not by a tax imposed an all citizens of the state of New Jersey but by legislative action that mandates higher pension and health care contributions in contravention of the Constitution of the state of New Jersey.”
She said contributions to health benefits and pensions are no different from paid vacations sick days and personal time; they all comprise compensation for work done.
In making her ruling Feinberg said the salaries couldn’t be touched – even in difficult economic times – and noted the provision is in the Constitution to protect judges from potentially vindictive acts of the executive and legislative branches of government.
Today’s hearing comes after the case wended its way through the justice system. Supreme Court Justice Virginia Long said the state’s highest court would not relax the rules of the court to allow Judge Paul DePascale to skip the trial and appellate levels back in July.