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"Our Liberties We Prize, Our Rights We Will Defend."

Commentary on national and local events from the standpoint of a Trenton city resident and state worker.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Constitutional Surgury

The New Jersey Supreme Court issued an opinion today siding with the governor who has been saying that the parts of the 2011 pension reform law that require state and local government employees to pay more for their pensions and to suspend the annual cost of living raises are binding but the part that requires the governor to make annual contributions to the fund is not.

Basically the court said that one legislature cannot make a promise to bind a future legislature to appropriate the money and also that the legislature cannot bind the public to pay a debt without a referendum on the election ballot.

To see the full text of the court's decision click here:

Forget the legal mumbo jumbo.  What the court says is that Christie can walk away from a deal he made with the unions to give up  our cost of living raises and to put more into our pensions but he doesn't have to put up the money to pay us.  That's the same thing as allowing a car dealer to enforce a contract to make payments on a car without actually giving you the vehicle. 

Would you pay for a vehicle the seller refuses to provide because he says he got a bad deal and now wants more money.  No, a deal between private parties is a deal and you are not supposed to walk away from it.  In fact a court would almost most certainly require the dealer to produce the car on the original terms in this example.

If you have been following this blog for a few years, you would know that I have portrayed Senate President Steven Sweeney as a villan in the past.  Yes, I thought at the time that the 2011 pension reform bill was a bad deal and Sweeney joined hands with the governor and supported it.  However times and alliances change and Sweeney is now on our side.  After all, the legislature voted to put the money in the budget to fully fund the pension for the last two years, but the governor used a line item veto to take it out.  The legislature was willing to pay, but the governor refused.

So why not override the veto.  It is not that simple because at least a two-thirds vote is required in both houses to override but only a simple majority to pass a bill.  Problem is the Democrats don't have the necessary 2/3 vote and the Republicans refuse to break party discipline and vote against the governor.  In fact under Christie, the legislature has never overrode a veto.

So remember, if you are a public worker or pensioner and you like the Republicans because they are against abortion, support family values, oppose gay marriage or want to "protect the taxpayer" don't cry when your pension goes bye-bye or your kids or grand kids can't get a state job with a pension.  Only blame yourself because you chose to vote against your economic self interest.

The rich as a group never vote against their self interest.  That's why the Republicans are against a millionaire tax and support reducing welfare, Medicaid and food stamp benefits.  (By the way these programs cost very little in comparison to things that benefit the rich like corporate welfare or the middle class like homestead rebates for senior citizens.)

Unfortunately, aside from going to the US Supreme Court and again arguing impairment of contract, there is little the unions can do.  That is because our state constitution makes the NJ Governor the most powerful governor in the country.

Perhaps we could somehow convince the public to vote to accept our pensions as a public debt.  In the past it was looked on as deferred wages payable based on a promise to provide a lifetime pension at the time of hire.  There was a state supreme court case from the 1950s that said so.  Its nice to know that the men in the dresses (read robes) chose to ignore their own precedent.

Men in dresses.  That may be why they did what they did here.  See judges have no real power if the governor refuses to play ball.  A Republican lawmaker was proposing that the governor should defy the court and refuse to pay up if the court ordered him to.  And how would the court enforce it, have the governor arrested or something.  And suppose they did and the state police refused to arrest him because they work under the authority of the governor, not the judiciary.

This is why judges tend to avoid these situations.  Because vis-a-vis the executive branch they are powerless (unless the executive branch chooses to obey).

So how do straighten out the judges and the governor.  Very easy, pass two constitutional amendments.

The first would eliminate the line item veto and force the governor to sign and approve or veto and reject bills as a whole.  That is the way things work on the federal level in Washington.  It forces political leaders in both parties to compromise if they hope to get anything done.  If there was no line item veto, simply drawing a line through the pension appropriation a d counting on party discipline to prevent an override would not work. That is because a veto would mean no budget and a government shutdown.  The Governor would be forced to work with the legislature to come up with budget both can live with even if it is not what the governor wants.

To do this is only right.  We elect our lawmakers to pass laws that benefit us.  Let's let them do their job even if the governor doesn't like the results.

The second amendment would provide for the election of judges every four years.  Judges would have no tenure.  They would be responsible to the public to keep their jobs by standing for election just like the governor and legislators.  They have this system in Pennsylvania and most other states.  In New Jersey, judges are appointed by the governor with the consent of the senate.  After the first four years, they must be reappointed and reapproved by the senate to keep their jobs.  After that they got their jobs for life.

Tell me if that sounds like democracy to you.  You get judges you don't get to pick and once you get them twice you are stuck with them forever as long as they want the job.  Conrade Stalin didn't even have it this good.  (Someone would have blown off his head if he went too far against those who mattered, meaning the Communist Party.)   Actually, one theory was that he was assassinated by omission, Beria and his other aides didn't call the doctors right away after he had his stroke.

I would go one step further that Pennsylvania and most other states.  American Bar Association rules prohibit judges from taking positions on issues or criticizing sitting opponents on how they voted on a case.  That is because the law is supposed to be pure and rulings should not be influenced by political ideology.  Hogwash.  We know that judges vote their political beliefs, that's why there are fights between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate every time a judicial appointment comes up.

Let judicial candidates campaign on the issues.  Let them stand before the public for their jobs and let them be accountable to their public for their beliefs and actions.  That's how democracy works and that's how the courts should work too.

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