Gov. Chris Christie rose to national prominence in the Republican Party by picking fights with public employees and their unions in New Jersey, but yesterday he suffered a major setback on that front as a state appeals court reversed his administration’s attempt to weaken state civil-service protections.
The unanimous decision released by the Superior Court’s Appellate Division effectively vacates a 2014 rule adopted by the state’s Civil Service Commission that sought to make it easier for department heads to promote state employees by putting them in similar “job bands” instead of using competitive testing, which has been a hallmark of the civil-service system in New Jersey.
The ruling also upholds an effort by lawmakers to exercise their little-used constitutional authority to nullify administrative rules if a majority of the legislators in both houses vote to declare the rules in conflict with legislative intent, which in this case was the state’s Civil Service Act.
The Civil Service Commission referred questions about the legal setback yesterday to the state attorney general’s Office, which argued the case before the three-judge appeals court panel, and a spokesman for that agency said the decision was still being reviewed. Meanwhile, union officials and Democratic lawmakers praised the ruling after it was released yesterday, calling it a victory for the modern tradition of making promotions based on merit rather than patronage and political favoritism.
“I am extremely heartened that the court repudiated Christie’s sneaky scheme to dismantle civil service by ignoring the will of the people, the Legislature, the law, and our system of checks and balances,” said Hetty Rosenstein, state director of the Communications Workers of America, which was one of the parties in the lawsuit.
Christie, a Republican, has been trying to enact civil-service changes since he first took office in early 2010, and the issue was featured prominently in a “tool kit” of proposed cost-saving reforms that was a hallmark of his first term. Although Democrats who control the Legislature worked with him to implement some of the proposals, including placing a cap on local property-tax hikes and changing public-employee pension and health benefits, they largely resisted his efforts to change civil-service rules even after Christie won reelection in 2013.
Christie has argued that the civil-service rules, combined with the protections workers also have through their union contracts, make government less efficient and more costly to operate. And since lawmakers have refused to work with him on legislation, Christie has instead sought to force changes using the Civil Service Commission, a panel of gubernatorial appointees.
He initially attempted to enact job-banding rules through the commission that would have affected all civil-service workers in New Jersey, at all levels of government, but later scaled back the job-banding proposal into a version that only applied to state workers. It was that version that was adopted by the Civil Service Commission in 2014 and later challenged by the unions and lawmakers.
They argued that the key flaw of the job-banding rule was that promotions within specific employee groups could occur without making employees take tests that under state civil-service laws have been used for years to manage their advancement. They also alleged that promoting within individual job bands was an affront to veterans who qualify for certain preferences based on their record of service.
And while the unions went to court, Democratic lawmakers voted on numerous occasions to invalidate the commission’s attempts to adopt job-banding rules using a constitutional amendment that was passed by New Jersey voters in 1992. That amendment wrote into the state constitution a process for lawmakers to declare an administrative rule in conflict with legislative intent without having to get approval from the governor. A resolution declaring such a conflict need only be passed by a majority of both houses once the administration has been given 30-day warning.
Although the Civil Service Commission attempted to make a series of minor amendments to the job-banding rule in 2013 and 2014, the appeals court ruled yesterday that the different versions were unified in trying to weaken the role that competitive examinations play in the employee-promotion process.
“We reject the CSC’s contention that its amendments to the Proposed Rule required the Legislature to begin the veto procedural process anew,” the court ruling said. “The Legislature correctly invalidated the Proposed Rule, and the amendments consistently ignored the Legislature’s steadfast substantive objection to job banding without competitive promotion examinations.”
“The Legislature reasonably found that job banding without competitive promotional examinations was inconsistent with legislative intent reflected in the plain language of the relevant provisions of the CSA,” the ruling went on to say.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) called the court decision “important and decisive,” saying it “affirms the Legislature’s constitutional lawmaking authority and reaffirms the balance of power that is vital to democracy.”
“It reinforces the basic principle that the laws of New Jersey must be respected by the executive branch of government and that departments and agencies cannot ignore or invalidate the Legislature’s intent,” Sweeney said.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) said if the appeals court had ruled in favor of the Christie administration it would have opened the door to more “nepotism and cronyism” in state government.
“Taxpayers and public workers deserve a system based on merit, not favoritism, which is why this decision is so welcome and important,” said Gusciora, whose legislative district includes Trenton and several other nearby communities with large state-worker populations.
While it’s unclear right now whether the Christie administration will eventually decide to appeal the decision, Rosenstein, the CWA leader, said in an interview with NJ Spotlight that the administration will also be facing an uphill battle if it does.
“It would be really difficult for them not to obey it and just think they are going to appeal to the Supreme Court,” Rosenstein said. “It was a unanimous decision.”