One of the prime methods of hiring, firing, promotion and discipline of public employees is New Jersey’s civil service. Attorneys from our firm represent employees in appeals from actions by their civil service employers. One of the most significant issues in the civil service hiring process our employment attorneys have encountered is when government employers exercise the “Rule of Three.”
New Jersey’s Constitution requires that hiring in the civil service system must be based on merit and fitness, and that a candidate’s merit and fitness be determined by a competitive examination. The system put in place by New Jersey’s Civil Service Act and the regulations drafted by New Jersey’s Civil Service Commission provide that impartial tests which examine a candidate’s competency are announced, qualified candidates take the test, and then the Civil Service Commission creates a list of “eligibles” from which the candidates must be hired. The highest scorers will receive the top spot on the list. Candidates are to be hired in accordance with their place on the list.
However, an exception applies to this process. Public employers may use the “Rule of Three” to pass over the highest scorer. In the recent case of In re Foglio, New Jersey’s Supreme Court had the chance to examine the Rule of Three. The first thing the Supreme Court did was to explain what the Rule of Three was all about. The Supreme Court explained: “Under the Rule of Three, after a list of at least three candidates is certified, the appointing authority has the discretion to select from among the top three candidates in filling a vacancy. The Rule of Three recognizes employment discretion and seeks to ensure that such discretion is not exercised in a way inconsistent with `merit’ considerations. While ensuring that competitive examinations winnow the field of candidates, the Rule of Three does not stand as ‘an immutable or total bar to the application of other important criteria” by a government employer’.”