Governor Christie to Seek Constitutional Amendment if Self-Serving Ruling on Judges’ Benefits is Affirmed
Trenton, NJ –
Ruling Flies in the Face of Fairness, Equity Among All Public Employees Who Are Paying More to Repair and Sustain State Benefits Programs
In response to a Superior Court judge’s decision to exempt her and her judiciary colleagues from paying their fair share of increased contribution rates for pension and health benefits, Governor Chris Christie today announced that he would, if necessary, seek an amendment to the New Jersey Constitution to have judges treated equally with the hundreds of thousands of other public employees and retirees who are sharing in the sacrifice to repair and sustain New Jersey’s public employee retirement and health benefits programs.
“This is an egregious and self-serving decision that protects a small class of individuals who believe they deserve exclusive treatment,” said Governor Christie. “I could not in good conscience stand by and watch hard-working state employees earning a fraction of a judge’s salary pay their fair share while the judiciary exempts itself while claiming special constitutional protection. This Administration’s bipartisan efforts to fix and sustain our pension and health benefits systems were aimed at all state and local employees, without favoritism, without singling out anyone for disparate treatment. Yet that is exactly what the judiciary wants to carve out for itself – special treatment, special status.”
Mercer County Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg ruled Monday in a case brought by one of her colleagues that the increased contributions for pension and health benefits for judges amounts to a “diminution” of judges’ salary, something she interpreted to be contrary to language in the state Constitution that protects judicial salaries during terms of office. The Administration firmly believes this to be a misinterpretation of the plain language of the Constitution: the increased contribution rates are directed at benefits only, with no intention to diminish the statutorily established salary of state judges.
The Christie Administration intends to appeal Judge Feinberg’s ruling. If, however, higher courts, including the New Jersey Supreme Court, hold to Judge Feinberg’s position, Governor Christie will seek an amendment to the state Constitution.
“If this one state judge or any state judge believes that to be the correct interpretation of the state Constitution, then that language needs to be amended in our Constitution,” said Governor Christie. “The contrary ruling by a single trial judge that the Constitution’s use of the word ‘salary’ somehow requires only increases in benefits and salary is wrong and self-serving. I am confident that the plain meaning of the Constitution – which requires only that judicial salaries not be diminished – will be vindicated during subsequent proceedings and ultimately by our Supreme Court.”
Judges of the Superior Court, the Appellate Division and the Supreme Court are among the highest paid employees of the state, receive the richest pension benefits and contribute the least amount in return for those lifetime benefits. The average annual pension benefit for new judicial retirees is $107,540. Yet, before reforms were enacted, judges paid the lowest contribution rate – 3 percent of salary – and made an average lifetime contribution of just $59,300 – paying for less than 10 percent of their retirement benefit. And the average amount of time it takes for a judge to recover his contributions in retirement is just six months.
The average new judicial retiree, before the Governor’s bipartisan reforms, could expect to collect $2.3 million over the remainder of their lifetime.
In contrast, prior to reforms, other public employees funded between 27 percent and 57 percent of their retirement benefit. All other public employees were contributing from 5.5 percent to 8.5 percent of salary prior to reforms, and are now contributing between 6.5 percent and 10 percent.
Salaries for judges are set by statute. They range from $165,000 for Superior Court Judges to higher increments for Assignment Judges and Appellate Division Judges and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court. The ranges tops off at $192,795 for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.