U.S. Markets close in 1 hr 13 mins

NJ voters approve raising judges' benefits costs

Angela Delli Santi, Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- New Jersey voters easily approved a ballot question forcing judges and state Supreme Court justices to pay more for retirement and health benefits.

By voting yes on the public question, voters OK'd a constitutional change that allows a 2011 law requiring higher benefits contributions from public workers to apply to those on the bench. Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Democrats who lead the Legislature all supported the change.

A Hudson County judge who sued to stop the law argued successfully that higher pension and medical contributions amount to an illegal salary cut. The constitution prohibits judges' salaries from being reduced while they are serving.

The provision was meant to protect judges from the possibility of retribution by lawmakers after potentially unfavorable rulings. But it also exempted sitting judges and justices from the sweeping pension and benefits changes that affected all other public workers.

There was no campaign against the question, in part because judges and justices are barred from politicking.

"It was the most common-sense vote anyone could cast," said Senate President Steve Sweeney, a South Jersey Democrat who sponsored the legislation changing public workers' benefits contributions.

The governor and lawmakers said higher benefits contributions were needed from workers to help keep the retirement and health care systems for teachers, police and firefighters, judges and other public workers from going bankrupt. The systems continue to be underfunded by tens of billions of dollars, though Christie said recently the changes had saved local governments $116 million.

The law increased judges' pension payments the most of any group, from 3 percent of their salary to 12 percent by 2017. That's nearly $15,000 more for most judges, who earn $165,000. The most recent figures available from the treasury show their pension fund has only 52 percent of the amount needed to meet its future obligations, the worst of any of the funds.

Some of the state's 462 judges are already paying the higher contribution, either because they were hired after the law took effect or they were not covered under the constitutional provision.