The Democratic-controlled Legislature quickly arranged the session after the state Supreme Court ruled last week that a 2011 law to increase public employee contributions to pensions and health benefits cannot apply to any sitting judge.
The court argued that judicial compensation is protected from legislative action in order to guard the branch's independence. Judges should be able to make unpopular decisions without fear of retribution from Trenton, said Kevin P. McCann, president of the state bar association.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who shepherded the pension reform bill through the Senate last year despite stiff resistance from unions, said judges should not receive special treatment. Police officers, teachers, and other state employees have had to pay more into the state's severely underfunded pension system.
"Democrats and Republicans both are very proud of our courts and their independence," Sweeney said during the session. "We would both fight if anybody tried to interfere with that. This is just a matter of fairness to all state employees."
Republican senators agreed.
"This is simple commonsense reform," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr. (R., Union). "It's the right thing to do."
But Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D., Union), one of the chamber's three "no" votes, worried that passing a constitutional amendment aimed specifically at judges set dangerous precedent. The measure should be more specifically tied to the law for state employees.
"We placed the judiciary of the state on notice that from November forward, you will listen, you will do what you have to do, or we will have a hammer that we didn't have previously," he said.
Assemblywoman Marlene Caride (D., Bergen) and Assemblyman Michael Carroll (R., Morris) also voted no.
Judges collect an average annual benefit of more than $110,000 at retirement, compared with less than $30,000 on average for public workers, according to statistics from the Treasury Department.
If all judges were held to the new law, they would pay up to 12 percent toward their pensions, vs. nearly 16 percent average contributions from public workers. Due to the lawsuit, tenured judges currently pay 3 percent toward their pensions.
And while most public employees have to wait more than a year after retirement to begin collecting their pensions, judges have access after 61/2 months, according to the Treasury.
The Judicial Retirement System is also the most unstable of the state's public employee pension systems, with a $280.5 million unfunded liability, according to Senate Democrats.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon M. Bramnick (R., Union) and two other members of his caucus said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) denied them the chance to speak at the brief session. Oliver "opened the board" for a vote before recognizing anyone to speak and did not allow anyone to speak after the vote.
Democratic staffers said that Oliver saw no signal before opening the board for a vote, and allowed one Democrat and one Republican to speak after the vote.
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