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Should NJ Judges Pay More For Their Benefits? [AUDIO]

Earlier this week, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that judges do not have contribute more for their pensions and health benefits despite a relatively new law that required them to do so.

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The legislature promised fast action. Evidently lawmakers can act quickly if properly motivated. Today, a Senate committee will consider a measure that would ask voters in November if they’d like to amend the constitution to force judges to pay more.

“We wanted to give the courts a chance to rule,” says State Senate President Steve Sweeney. “Even though we anticipated what they were going to rule we were hoping for something different….This was their opinion. They ruled. I respect it, but we just don’t agree and this is what we need to do going forward to fix it.”

The concurrent resolution to be considered today proposes a constitutional amendment that clarifies the Legislature’s authority to enact laws that deduct contributions from the salaries of Supreme Court Justices and Superior Court Judges to help fund their employee benefits, which include their pension and health care coverage.

The amendment specifically concerns only these justices and judges, as only their salaries are referenced and protected from various reductions, during their terms of appointment under current law.

Sweeney is confident the committee will clear the legislation today and that both the Senate and the Assembly will give it final approval Monday. He’s even more confident that voters will approve it in November. He explains, “I would expect that the voters would recognize it’s not fair for every, single employee in the state to be paying more and for people who hold very important jobs to pay nothing.”

Governors do not get the chance to sign resolutions because they go right to the voters, but Governor Chris Christie fully supports this one.  He talked about the issue extensively in October after Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg ruled that increasing judges’ pension contributions by 9 percent violates the State Constitution because it effectively reduces their salaries.

Christie said, “We’re asking the people who are paid the most to pay the most…..They (judges) are public servants. They are not kings and queens in black robes……I want the judiciary to be independent, I just don’t want them to be part of an elite special class of citizens who get better benefits at a lower cost than everybody else in the state, and do that at the expense of the taxpayers.”

The Governor pointed out that the average judge now pays just $59,300 into the pension fund but withdraws $2.3 million in benefits over their lifetime and they can collect pensions equaling 75 percent of their salary after 10 years on the bench.

Based on information provided by the Judicial Branch, the Office of Legislative Services estimates that, if the proposed constitutional amendment is approved by the voters at the general election held in 2012 and if the collection of the additional contribution begins January 1, 2013, judges combined would contribute $987,534 during the second half of State Fiscal Year 2013, $2.962 million during Fiscal Year 2014, and $3.950 million in Fiscal Year 2015.

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