New Jersey’s misguided trend of putting policy decisions in the state Constitution as a favor to partisan special interests has reached its inevitably absurd conclusion.
A North Jersey legislator plans to seek a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right of citizens to clean air and water. That’s it — no science or defined policy about what the exercise of such a right might mean. Maybe current water and air standards are already satisfactory. Maybe much more polluted air and water would still satisfy this right. Even if such a right were effective, it would draw resources away from the more pressing environmental concerns of habitat destruction and the effects of a warming climate.
Pennsylvania and some other states have made such amendments to their constitutions, we assume as favors to environmental special interest groups and to the lawyers who get another litigation possibility.
The lead special interest group in New Jersey is the Delaware Riverkeepers, and the legislator is Assemblyman Tim Eustace, D-Bergen, Passaic.
Eustace has a history of ill-informed and pointless legislation. Just last year he proposed a constitutional amendment to put slot machines at Atlantic City International Airport, without bothering to even mention the idea to the airport operator or local mayor, who called it “a terrible idea.” He also introduced bills to make the Legislature decide whether a pork roll sandwich should be called “Taylor Ham” or “Taylor Pork Roll.”
For its part, the Delaware Riverkeepers thinks the right to clean air and water should be in the state Constitution’s equivalent of the U.S. Bill of Rights. This misunderstands and demeans the Bill of Rights, which expresses the founders’ genius in protecting individual liberties from the government they were creating. Putting an undefined right to clean air and water in the New Jersey Constitution would potentially empower state government to diminish some of those liberties, such as the right to have and use property.
A right to clean air and water is as vague as overly vague laws get, and we would hope the New Jersey Supreme Court would declare it unconstitutional.
But don’t count on it. Eustace said he is modeling his bill on one enacted in Pennsylvania. When lawyers based a challenge on it, that state’s divided Supreme Court instead made up also vague policy guidelines to match the rights, such as prohibiting government from allowing the “actual or likely degradation of … our air and water quality” — but at the same time, being careful not “to deprive persons of the use of their property or to derail development leading to an increase in the general welfare, convenience and prosperity of the people.”
A dissenting justice complained “the state’s constitutional obligation to ‘conserve and maintain’ simply cannot mean that Pennsylvania’s natural resources may not be responsibly disturbed and utilized.”
With the Keystone State mess as an example, New Jersey legislators — or if it comes to it, the public — shouldn’t have trouble seeing the wisdom in rejecting this constitutional overreach.
But state leaders should heed the warning in this — they have opened a can of worms with their constitutional meddling for political purposes and better turn back.
As we have asserted multiple times over the years, the purpose of the constitution is to make clear the principles that apply to all citizens and the structure needed for government to work. It is wrong for state leaders to put their policy decisions into it in an attempt to tie the hands of leaders and citizens of the future.
The New Jersey Constitution’s equivalent of the Bill of Rights, Article 1 Rights and Privileges, contained 22 appropriate and well-thought-out personal liberties until the end of 2013. That’s when Democrats catering to their union supporters pushed through an amendment raising the existing state minimum wage and increasing it by the consumer inflation rate annually. That should have been a regular law, not a constitutional amendment.
Next the teachers union wanted an amendment putting state funding of their retirement benefits ahead of all other state spending. Thankfully, they haven’t gotten it — yet. Now there are 141 pieces legislation in Trenton seeking to amend the state Constitution.
New Jersey government already is dysfunctional, leaving the state saddled with crushing debt, nation-leading taxes and a business-chasing regulatory overload.
But it can always get a little worse, and damaging the legal basis for state government looks like a sure way to make it so.