In 2011, Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill increasing the amount of money that state workers must contribute to their pension and health benefits.

A Superior Court judge sued, citing the clause in the state constitution saying that the salaries of judges "shall not be diminished during their term of appointment." Ultimately, the state Supreme Court agreed, ruling that the changes in required pension and health-insurance contributions amounted to an unconstitutional cut in judges' salaries.

The result of all this is Public Question No. 2 on the Nov. 6 ballot. The question asks voters if the state constitution should be amended to allow the Legislature to change the amount of judges' pension and health-insurance contributions.

We suspect voters will approve the amendment. After all, why shouldn't judges be subject to any change in benefits that applies to all other state employees?

But sitting judges are constitutionally protected from having their salaries diminished for good reason - to protect them from political retribution for unpopular decisions and to preserve the independence of the courts. And we think this poorly written amendment is a bad idea.

The Legislature and the governor had two easy ways out here that they did not take. They could have applied the increased contributions only to future judges. Or they could have added 10 words to this proposed change in the constitution.

The proposed amendment, with the new part in italics, reads as follows: Judges salaries "shall not be diminished during the term of their appointment, except for deductions from such salaries for contributions, established by law from time to time, for pensions ... health benefits, and other, similar benefits.

If lawmakers had tacked these words on to the end of that sentence - as long as the changes apply to all state employees - we would have no problem urging a "yes" vote on the amendment.

But as written, legislators would have the ability to single out judges and effectively cut their salaries by increasing their benefit contributions.

The amendment does not adequately protect the critical principle of judicial independence, when it easily could have.

Vote "no" on Public Question No. 2.


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