NJ Supreme Court to NJ Public Workers: Screw You

I’m posting this today on behalf of our super-busy Jazzman, who posted it at his own excellent site yesterday afternoon. The breaking news is a few hours old. But the outrage still feels fresh. – Rosi

I think I’ll call Comcast later today and tell them I’m not paying my cable bill any more: I just can’t afford it. Same with Verizon and my cell phone. Oh, and my mortgage company, too.

I mean, why should I? Sure, I may have signed contracts with all of them, and I may have already used their services, but the NJ Supreme Court [yesterday] just confirmed that contracts in New Jersey don’t mean squat:

The state Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Gov. Chris Christie can slash billions of dollars in contributions from New Jersey’s troubled public employee pension system.

The court’s ruling caps an intense fight for pension funding and deals a major blow to the state’s labor unions, who challenged Christie’s spending cuts. Christie had sought to dismantle the pension law, which he argued was unconstitutional.

READ: Key excerpts of decision

Judges split 5-2 reversing the lower court’s ruling that ordered Christie had broken his own landmark pension law and had to work with the Legislature to comply with it.

That the state must get its financial house in order is plain. The need is compelling in respect of the state’s ability to honor its compensation commitment to retired employees,” the court said. “But this court cannot resolve that need in place of the political branches. They will have to deal with one another to forge a solution to the tenuous financial status of New Jersey’s pension funding in a way that comports with the strictures of our constitution.”

See, all you have to do is have a governor who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, and — POOF! — any worries about actually following the law are magically wiped away!

Of course, we public employees still have to meet our obligations under the law; we’re not allowed, apparently, to say that we can’t afford to make the increased pension payments that were the tradeoff for the state to enter into a contractual obligation regarding our pensions. At least, that’s what Democrats like Senate President Steve Sweeney told us when they went around the state with Christie, telling us what a great deal they had brokered for us…

How’s that working out now, Senator?

BTW, this paragraph from nj.com’s article is total crap:

The administration’s hope for a robust economic recovery didn’t shake out, and the state didn’t take in enough tax revenue to meet the payment schedule in the 2014, 2015 and so far, 2016 budgets.

Oh, please: there was never a plan to make these payments. The notion that pension payments would have been made if economic growth had been better is a fantasy. And, as I’ve pointed out numerous times, the press didn’t seem to give a damn about where the money was going to come from back in 2013, when the issue should have been the core of the gubernatorial campaign.

The media and centrist Democrats failed to demand that Chris Christie come up with a plan to pay for pension reform; now, public employees are getting the shaft.

And now the Supreme Court plays along with the charade, pretending as if no one could have ever possibly foreseen that New Jersey would need to raise taxes to pay for this bill. Understand that the last budget the Legislature presented to Christie had the required payments included — along with a tax increase. But, according to the court, Christie’s political ambitions trump the state’s need to meet its obligations.

The ruling, which I admit I’ve only scanned, is truly bizarre. Is the court really suggesting the state can default on its pension obligations if the public votes to do so? That the state can simply get out of their debts through an act of popular will? That the contracts clause of the federal Constitution can be freely ignored? That a teacher or a cop enters into an agreement with the state fully aware that the state can default on its retirement obligations to them at any moment?

If that’s true, what’s to stop the state from reneging on any of its debts? And why, then, would Wall Street ever think of doing business with us ever again? The implications of this argument are truly frightening.

From the decision:

From the decision:

Applying those principles here, the Legislature and Governor were without power, acting without voter approval, to transgress the Debt Limitation Clause and the corresponding Appropriations and other budget clauses of the State Constitution. The Legislature and Governor, as well as the many interested parties involved in the legislative process, may have included contractual words in Chapter 78, but those words, no matter their clarity, could not create an enforceable contract of the type asserted. Voter approval is required to render this a legally enforceable contractual agreement compelling appropriations of this size covering succeeding fiscal years; otherwise, this agreement is enforceable only as an agreement that is subject to appropriation, which under the Appropriations Clause renders it subject to the annual budgetary appropriations process. In that process, the payment may not be compelled by the Judiciary. The Legislature’s strong expression of intent remains clear in Chapter 78, but it does not bind future legislatures or governors in a manner that strips discretionary functions concerning appropriations that the State Constitution leaves to the legislative and executive branches. (pp. 49-53) [emphasis mine]

Again: if that’s true, why should the state compel me to pay more and more into a pension system the court says can go into default anyway? Apparently, the court’s answer is: “Because it’s the law!”

In closing, to be clear, we are not declaring Chapter 78 unconstitutional, contrary to the dissent’s suggestion that the majority is “striking down,” “voiding,” or “invalidating” that statute. Chapter 78 remains in effect, as interpreted, unless the Legislature chooses to modify it. There is no need to address severability or the mutuality of obligations. Those considerations are for the political branches.

Oh, I see: we public employees still have to pay up, even if the state doesn’t!  

Let’s skip down to the dissent, written by Justice Barry Albin with concurrence from Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, two courageous and logical jurists:

Today, the majority strikes down a law — Chapter 78, L.

2011, c. 78 — vaunted by the Governor and Legislature as the solution to the State’s pension crisis. The decision strikes down the promise made to hundreds of thousands of public workers by the political branches of government that deferred wages earned for years of service would be funded during their retirement. The decision unfairly requires public workers to uphold their end of the law’s bargain — increased weekly deductions from their paychecks to fund their future pensions — while allowing the State to slip from its binding commitment to make commensurate contributions. Thus, public workers continue to pay into a system on its way to insolvency.

The Governor and Legislature cannot walk away from the contractual commitments they signed into law in Chapter 78. Their failure to make the required payments into the pension fund constitutes an impairment of their contract with public workers.


Never before, until today, has the Debt Limitation Clause been applied to the ordinary operating expenses of government, such as deferred compensation earned by public workers and payable as pension benefits. Indeed, this Court previously held that a statute requiring the State to make annual contributions to a pension fund is not a debt within the intendment of the Debt Limitation Clause. See City of Passaic v. Consol. Police & Firemen’s Pension Fund Comm’n, 18 N.J. 137, 147 (1955). Moreover, this Court has held that the Appropriations Clause cannot stand as a barrier to the enforcement of constitutional rights. In short, the majority’s contention that the Governor and Legislature’s contract with public workers is unenforceable under state law has no contemporary legal support.

I’m no lawyer, so I can’t give an informed opinion on how precedent fails to uphold this decision. All I do know is that [yesterday] the NJ Supreme Court told every teacher, every cop, every firefighter, every clerk, every social worker, every secretary working in a state building, every analyst, every medical professional employed by the state, and all other New Jersey public workers:

Screw you.

And that begs a question: given [yesterday’s] ruling, what bright, talented young person would ever consider a career of public service in New Jersey?


h/t the excellent Drew Sheneman

ADDING: The dissent is really worth reading:

The State knows how to draft a contract to limit its financial obligation. Many state contracts include language that the contractual terms are subject to appropriation by the Legislature. On the other hand, the State knows how to draft a binding public contract. In Spina, this Court set forth the conditions for the making of an enforceable legislative contract. The majority’s reading of the Appropriations Clause renders Spina a nullity. It also runs afoul of the Federal Contracts Clause. If the enforceability of a contract depends on the willingness of the Legislature to appropriate money in any particular year, then, by the majority’s logic, no contract is enforceable. That conclusion will come as a great surprise to many who count on the good faith and credit of the State in honoring its contractual commitments. The Appropriations Clause cannot stand as a barrier to the enforcement of federal or state constitutional rights, including contractual rights. See Brand, supra, 303 U.S. at 97-104, 58 S. Ct. at 444-48, 82 L. Ed. at 689-93; see also Abbott v. Burke (Abbott XXI), 206 N.J. 332, 363-64 (2011); N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. D.C., 118 N.J. 388, 399-400 (1990).


Comments (3)

  1. nancysee

    Let me speak on behalf of the 15-20% of this state that you revile (brilliant way to get our votes back) as Christiecrats.  We are mostly people who grew up never dreaming that we would vote for anything but Democrats.  Now we can’t envision ever voting for a Democrat.


    Because you tell working people “screw you” with every fiber of your being.  In my lifetime you’ve gone from being the party of the working people to the party of corrupt cronies, illegal aliens, black racist thugs and overfed government workers. Do you realize that the $12,000 I pay for my modest house is almost TEN TIMES what my brother pays for a virtually identical home in Republican Florida?

    Not coincidentally, in my lifetime Republicans have gone from less than one third of Congress to repeated majorities-hey geniuses can you figure out why?

    Enjoy the new Republican governor we will give you until 2026.

    PS-Oh PLEASE put a constitutional amendment on the ballot requiring working people to pay tens of billions to prop up the corrupt pensions of the government work force.  When it goes down by double digits after the union piggies pour in hundreds of millions in ads some of you will smarten up.

    Not many though.

  2. marshwren

    Here’s the state constitution (scroll down to Article VIII, Section III, paragraphs 1-3 for the Debt Limitation clauses).  As i read it, it’s all about “debt”; and nowhere in the Burgos* decision do i see any statement or allegation that the State’s contribution to the pension fund is a “debt”.  Ergo, where is the relevance, much less applicability, of VIII; III, 1-3?  Interestingly (and incriminatingly) the majority decision ‘references’ the Debt Limitation Clause(s), but i didn’t see any actual quotation or specific citation thereof.

    While you’re rooting through the Constitution, check out Article VIII, Section II, paragraph 8 (“No contributions from employers, other than the State, or from employees of those employers, collected by the State entirely by means of an assessment exclusively on, or exclusively measured by, the wages or salaries paid by the employers to the employees, and no interest or income derived from any investment of those contributions, shall be used for any purpose other than providing and administering benefits to employees and their families or dependents…) and square that with the $600M in hedge fund management fees Christie paid on the contributions of employees AND the investment income it earned.



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