Retaliation against judges for unpopular decisions is nothing new (consider the record number of impeachment efforts in 2011). But 29 states have constitutional provisions similar to the federal constitution that clearly prohibit the reduction of salaries for general-jurisdiction and appellate judges during their terms of office. A 30th, North Dakota, provides this protection only to members of the state’s supreme court. (h/t Survey of Judicial Salaries).
Do those protections extend to retirement/health benefits, however? Changes to New Jersey’s Judicial Retirement System, signed into law last week, are now the subject to a potential constitutional challenge under the state’s reduction-protection clause (h/t Gavel Grab).
SB 2937 of 2011 makes various changes to the manner in which the Judicial Retirement System (JRS) operates and to the benefits provisions of the system. According to the bill’s fiscal note, the new law:
- Provides for increases in the employee contribution rates from 3 percent to 12 percent for JRS phased-in over seven years
- Requires all public employees and certain public retirees to contribute toward the cost of health care benefits coverage based upon a percentage of the cost of coverage.
The New Jersey Constitution, however, includes the following provision (Article VI, Section 6)
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.
One unnamed judge told NJBIZ.com “The state constitution prevents the government from tampering with our compensation while we’re serving our term…We thought we would be exempt from [Governor Chris] Christie’s pension and health cutbacks, but this appears to be payback for the state Supreme Court’s Abbott District ruling.”
The Abbott District ruling(s) deal with financing for elementary education and levels of spending under the state’s constitutional guarantee that “[t]he Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years.” The latest decision, handed down in May 2011, found the state’s current funding structure had failed to fully fund the School Funding Reform Act of 2008. Governor Christie had announced he had considered ignoring the state supreme court decision, a position he later backed away from.
So, is the change to the judge’s retirement system “payback” and an unconstitutional one at that? Stay tuned….