GEOFF MULVIHILL,Associated Press
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey voters will get the final word in a dispute over whether the state's judges can be forced to contribute more toward their pensions and benefits — the same as other public employees.
Both chambers of the state Legislature on Monday passed a measure to let voters decide on an amendment to the state constitution to clarify that the Legislature has the authority to deduct benefit contributions from the judges' salaries.
Gov. Chris Christie, who often bashes the state's famously activist courts, said he would campaign for passage of the amendment, which will be on November's ballot.
It's unlikely that there will be much of a campaign against the amendment, because state judges are barred from politicking.
The Legislature, with several members absent, acted quickly and decisively in a voting session called during a time when lawmakers are usually on recess. The Senate passed the measure 28-0 and the Assembly passed it 62-3.
The votes came just six days after the state's Supreme Court ruled that its members and other judges did not have to follow a law passed by the Legislature and signed by Christie last year that sought to have public employees pay more toward their benefits.
In a 3-2 ruling, the court reasoned that the state constitution protects judges' salaries from being diminished. Variations of the idea have appeared in the last two versions of the state constitution as a way to protect judges from being punished for their rulings by lawmakers. In last week's decision, the court found that deducting more for benefits was akin to a pay cut.
In their votes Monday, lawmakers were nearly unanimous that the implications of the ruling would be unjust.
Some said the judges were only looking out for their own financial interests.
"It's about time justices — including two of the most aggressive violator of the people's rights — be smacked down," Sen. Gerald Cardinale, a Republican from Demarest, said during the Senate debate. He did not specify which two judges he was referencing.
Cardinale, like other conservatives, believes the court often does too much to make law rather than interpret it. They cite cases that required the state to pour billions into the schools in low-income districts, forced towns to have zoning plans to accommodate housing for lower-income residents and grant same-sex couples the same legal rights and married heterosexual couples, among other rulings.
Lawmakers who are generally less hostile to the court used different rhetoric — saying the measure is about fairness and fiscal sense.
"How is that fair to the hundreds of thousands of public employees in this state who have to live under this law?" asked Sen. Shirley Turner, a Democrat from Lawrence Township. "How is it fair to the taxpayers who would have to pick up the pieces if the system goes bankrupt?"
Lawmakers said that the judicial retirement system is in worse shape than other public worker retirement funds. Judges, most of whom make $165,000 per year, pay 3 percent of their salaries toward their pensions — far less than other employee groups.
Under the pension law passed last year, their contributions would rise to 12 percent by 2017.
During Monday's legislative debates, only one lawmaker spoke against the amendment. Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, a Democrat from Elizabeth, said he was opposed because the wording of the amendment would open the door to future changes to judges' pay.
He said that could damage judicial independence.
Follow Mulvihill at http://www.twitter.com/geoffmulvihill
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.