Three months ago a divided New Jersey Supreme Court defied Governor Chris Christie and affirmed a trial judge’s ruling in DePascale, J.S.C. v. State that State Constitution’s no diminution clause barred a legislated increase in the pension and health benefit contributions of the state’s appointed judiciary. When Christie denounced the lower court judge as a protector and member of a “little cliquey club of 423” the State Bar Association rose to the defense of judicial independence and Assignment Judge Linda Feinberg, the Trenton judge whose court was the mandatory venue for Judge Paul DePascale’s challenge.
When the Supreme Court ruled that take-home pay could not be diminished the Governor and Legislature promptly proposed and placed on the ballot Public Question No. 2. It would amend the constitution. Voters – 70% of whom – a recent Rutgers Eagleton poll reports – favor the measure overwhelmingly – will be asked:
Do you approve an amendment to the New Jersey Constitution, as agreed to by the Legislature, to allow contributions set by law to be taken from the salaries of Supreme Court Justices and Superior Court Judges for their employee benefits?
New Jersey judges are nominated by the Governor, confirmed by the State Senate for a seven year term, then must repeat the process to receive tenure until the mandatory retirement age of 70. During Christie’s three year tenure there has been a standoff between Governor and Legislature, leaving two vacancies on the high court. (Christie has vowed to remake the Supreme Court which he considers to be too liberal.) But here the branches are united in budget-cutting zeal. Though it may be spitting into the wind, the State Bar has again responded strongly, seeing the measure as a threat to the independence of judges who already must twice run the political gauntlet of nomination and confirmation. NJSBA President Kevin P. McCann’s open letter can be found HERE.
Fit for classroom discussion is whether the Bar Association is merely currying favor with judges or if it has correctly identified a real threat to the integrity of the judicial process.