By Kate King

A court decision released Thursday blocked efforts by the administration of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to overhaul the state's civil-service rules.

Mr. Christie, a Republican, has called for revamping civil-service provisions to control costs and lower property taxes.

But the state's Civil Service Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, met resistance from public-sector unions and Democratic lawmakers when it acted to eliminate competitive promotional examinations within certain job groups. The move would have given supervisors more discretion in choosing which employees to advance.

The practice, known as "job banding," undermines the concept of merit-based public employment, said Hetty Rosenstein, director of Communications Workers of America New Jersey. The union, which represents 35,000 state employees, sued to block the rule changes.

The New Jersey Legislature repeatedly passed resolutions vetoing the proposal, but the Civil Service Commission adopted the changes anyway. In its decision Thursday, a three-judge panel with the Superior Court of New Jersey's Appellate Division ruled the Legislature's authority to block the changes was protected by the state constitution. The panel vacated the commission's rules allowing job banding.

Civil service is "designed to make government employment available to anyone who is qualified for it and to select the best people," Ms. Rosenstein said. "As soon as you change that into something where someone gets to pick the person they've turned it into a patronage system."

Mr. Christie's office didn't respond to a request for comment. It wasn't clear if the state would appeal the ruling. A spokesman for the state Office of the Attorney General, which represented the Civil Service Commission in the court case, said it was reviewing the decision.

Beginning in 2013, the Civil Service Commission proposed grouping together certain job titles within departments such as the Office of Information Technology and Department of Transportation. The job banding wouldn't have applied to law-enforcement or public-safety jobs.

Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers University, said the decision means Mr. Christie will have to reach a compromise with Democratic lawmakers if he wants to change civil-service rules.

"It certainly doesn't stop the administration and the Legislature from getting together on what are arguably necessary improvements," Mr. Pfeiffer said.

Altering civil-service rules runs the risk of allowing favoritism in public employment, but some kind of change is necessary to make government more efficient, he said. Competitive promotional examinations are time-consuming and not practical for some jobs, such as in the technology field.

"Yes, it runs the risk that management could abuse the process," Mr. Pfeiffer said. "But the offsetting cost is being hamstrung by a process that doesn't provide the flexibility that's needed to provide important services."

Write to Kate King at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 01, 2016 18:29 ET (23:29 GMT)

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