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New Jersey’s Civil Service System – Merit, Not Politics

Some complain that civil service hinders efficient government.  Managers object that it limits their ability to run their organizations by hiring, firing and imposing discipline as they believe best.  Citizens argue it makes it too hard to get rid of “bad apples.”  Employees believe it makes promotions and transfers too difficult.  Applicants think the system makes it too hard to get hired.  All these criticisms are valid, to a point. megaphone-1480342__340-300x200 However, they miss the mark because they focus on the trees but miss the forest.  Life is a series of tradeoffs; every decision is a cost/benefit analysis.

New Jersey’s Civil Service System was adopted to combat grave problems with state and local government.  New Jersey has a long history of government corruption; it is by no means a new phenomenon.  This history includes a “spoils system” which gave election winners the power to award jobs to their supporters, bribery, favoritism, nepotism, cronyism and discrimination in hiring and keeping government jobs.  It was a disgrace.  New Jersey was – and is – hardly alone in these problems, but New Jersey took it to another level. Without civil service these problems would continue unchecked.  It’s not perfect, but New Jersey is a far better place because of civil service.

In 1908, the early Twentieth Century Progressive Movement led New Jersey to adopt its first civil service laws, and to establish the Civil Service Commission to regulate civil service practices.  Then, in 1947, a constitutional convention was held at Rutgers University, in which a new Constitution was adopted.  The goal of the constitutional convention was to reform many areas of New Jersey’s state and local government.  Article VII, section 1 of the New Jersey Constitution of 1947 provided that:

Appointments and promotions in the civil service of the State, and of such political subdivisions as may be provided by law, shall be made according to merit and fitness to be ascertained, as far as practicable, by examination, which, as far as practicable, shall be competitive; except that preference in appointments by reason of active service in any branch of the military or naval forces of the United States in time of war may be provided by law.

Thus, rather than being dependent upon the whims of the Legislature, in New Jersey civil service is given constitutional protection.  Our Constitution requires that employment decisions be based on merit, not politics.

New Jersey’s Civil Service System is governed by the “Civil Service Act,” and regulations issued by the New Jersey Civil Service Commission which implement the Act into practical action.  The current Civil Service Act is contained in Title 11A of New Jersey Statutes, replaced the former Title 11 in 1986.  The Commission’s regulations are contained in Title 4A of the New Jersey Administrative Code.

When Title 11A was adopted the Commission’s name was changed to the New Jersey Merit System Board, which shared public employee regulation with the Department of Personnel.  Then, in 2008, the Legislature abolished the Department of Personnel, and merged its duties into the new Civil Service Commission, which replaced and took over the duties of the Merit System Board as well.

Established by New Jersey’s Constitution, Civil Service Act and Civil Service Regulations, it is wholly a creature of state law.  Absent some federal statutory or constitutional issue, relief for violation of rests solely in the New Jersey’s administrative agencies and state courts.

The Civil Service Act furthers the following stated public policy:

  1. to select and advance employees on the basis of their relative knowledge, skills and abilities;
  2. [] to provide public officials with appropriate appointment, supervisory and other personnel authority to execute properly their constitutional and statutory responsibilities;
  3. [] to encourage and reward meritorious performance by employees in the public service and to retain and separate employees on the basis of the adequacy of their performance;
  4. [] to ensure equal employment opportunity at all levels of the public service; and
  5. [] to protect career public employees from political coercion and to ensure the recognition of such bargaining and other rights as are secured pursuant to other statutes and the collective negotiations law.

Thus, the overriding policy is that appointments be made based on merit, abilities and fitness to ensure the efficient provision of services by New Jersey’s state and local governments.  Moreover, where possible, the Policy is that merit for appointment should be determined by examination.

As Judge Stern of the Appellate Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court explained in 1998, “the design of civil service legislation was to secure tenure during good behavior for those employees who come within its scope … and to give protection against dismissal and other types of discrimination to those holding positions which the Legislature placed in the classified service.”


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