On August 11, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Hudson County case of State v. Bennie Anderson. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:51-2 was whether the defendant’s forfeiture of his entire pension as a result of accepting a $300 bribe violated the “excessive fines” clause of the Eighth Amendment to the federal constitution.
Justice LaVecchia wrote for a 5-1 majority of the Court in relevant part: Having determined that forfeiture of a pension is automatic and mandatory upon the commission of certain offenses under section 3.1, it is clear that defendant did not possess a property right in his pension protected by the Federal or State Constitutions. The Legislature has established that the pre-condition of honorable service to the statutory right is not met when a conviction for an enumerated offense occurs. In such a case, the conditional quasi-contractual right to receive a public pension has not become the “property” of the employee. As the trial court said, one cannot lose what one did not have to begin with. And, without loss, there is no fine for purposes of the Bajakajian analysis.
In short, this case turns on the legislative decision in 2007 to take discretion away from courts and administrative agencies when public employees commit any of the identified offenses. The trial court correctly noted that and faithfully applied the law as written. And, as the court’s analysis noted, New Jersey’s approach to treat public pensions as quasi-contractual rights rooted in statute, and not as property rights, is consistent with the majority of courts to have addressed this issue. E.g., Hopkins, 150 F.3d at 1162; Hames v. City of Miami, 479 F. Supp. 2d 1276 (S.D. Fla. 2007).
The citation to federal district cases indicates that there is no New Jersey state precedent regarding the issue at hand. The federal cases cited are considered persuasive, but not binding on New Jersey state courts.