In the frenzied reaction to the New Jersey Supreme Court's ruling that the state's judges cannot be required to pay more of their pension and health care costs, many people seem to have lost sight of the important principle at stake.

The court ruled on Tuesday that a clause in the state constitution protecting judges from salary reductions during their terms means sitting judges cannot be forced to pay an increased share of their health and pension benefits.

As we've said before, we wish this lawsuit had never been filed. It was unseemly for Superior Court Judge Paul DePascale to try to excuse himself and other judges from the pension and benefit reforms passed last year. Those changes, after all, are aimed at safeguarding the pension system. Judges, among the most highly paid state employees, should accept that everyone on the state payroll needs to contribute more toward their benefits.

But the state constitution says what it says: Judges' salaries cannot be diminished during their terms. And the pension and health care changes would cut judges' take-home pay by at least $17,000.

The next step is clear and is already under way: Amend the state constitution to distinguish between judges' salaries and their benefits. But the amendment must be carefully crafted so that it does not undermine the important principle that judges must be protected from economic retaliation for their rulings.

The clause protecting those salaries was intended to guarantee the independence of the judiciary. That independence safeguards all of us. It means judges are free to make unpopular decisions - the kind that protect the rights of minorities, for instance. And it means that when we stand in court we can expect the same treatment afforded our richest or most politically connected neighbors.

Imagine how independent judges would be if they knew that any decision that upset the power brokers could mean a cut in pay. Think it couldn't happen? The benefits case itself is a good example of how elected officials feel about judges.

Gov. Chris Christie, who previously attacked a Superior Court judge who ruled in favor of DePascale's suit, called Tuesday's ruling a case of "liberal activist judges running amok."

Lawmakers tripped over one another to criticize the ruling and the court. A comment by Sen. Steven Oroho, R-Sussex, was typical: "Today's ruling further demonstrates the elitist nature of a court that continues to thumb its nose at the taxpayer."

It's no stretch to imagine the actions some public officials would take if they could - such as reducing judicial pay - to punish judges for decisions they find troubling.

So, by all means, amend the constitution to make it clear that judges are not immune to the rising costs of providing their benefits. Judges should be subject to any benefit changes that also apply to all other state employees. But don't give future governors and lawmakers the ability to single out judges and diminish their pay as a form of retaliation.

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