This week, the state Supreme Court ruled that a 2011 law increasing pension and health-care costs for about 500,000 public workers violated the state constitutional provision protecting judges' salaries from being reduced during their tenures on the bench.
Lawmakers had drafted a constitutional amendment allowing them to amend the judges' salary protection if the court ruled against them. Voters must approve any changes to the constitution.
Sen. Richard J. Codey (D., Essex) is cochairing the effort to get the question regarding the judges' benefits on the ballot.
"They are trying to exempt themselves from the deductions from their salaries to pay for their benefits," Codey said. "They should not be held any differently than any other public employee. . . . They are like everybody else - they are public employees."
The 2011 law raised the pension contribution for Supreme Court justices and about 450 Superior Court judges from 3 percent of their salaries to 12 percent, with the increase to be phased in over seven years.
A judge in Hudson County sued, arguing that it was unconstitutional for the Legislature to impose what amounted to a salary cut for sitting judges.
The judge, Paul DePascale, said in court papers that the law was designed to protect judges from being influenced or punished by the Legislature or the governor for decisions that could be unpopular or controversial.
The Supreme Court noted in its 3-2 ruling that without a corresponding salary increase, the increased contributions toward benefits eventually would cost a judge at least $17,000 annually in take-home pay, amounting to a cut of more than 10 percent.
The state maintained that the constitutional ban on reducing judges' salaries while they're on the bench does not include other compensation, such as pension and health benefits.
Gov. Christie, a Republican who supports the constitutional change, said at a town hall event in Ocean City on Wednesday that judges pay about $59,000 into their pensions on average and extract $2.3 million in retirement.
Christie and the Legislature increased employee contributions and raised the retirement age for new workers to help shore up the pension and health benefits system, which was severely underfunded and in danger of collapse.