Our employment attorneys represent New Jersey public employees, such as police officers, firefighters, public works workers, professionals and others, who are covered by the civil service system. We hear many complaints about civil service: The rules are too rigid; it makes it too hard to fire an employee; it makes it too hard for an employee to find a job; discipline is either too hard or too easy to impose, depending on your point of view; the rules are too complex and burdensome.
Many of these complaints are true. However, they miss the point. The New Jersey civil service system is there for a reason. New Jersey has a long history of corruption, cronyism, bribery and nepotism. While there are many funny stories from this history, from Frank Hague’s “I am the law” quote to the recent closing of the George Washington Bridge, this history is awful. It has a terrible effect on government.
Hiring and promotion based on politics, bribes or “who you know” means that merit is removed from the equation. When merit is removed, government operations and the government’s services to its citizens inevitably suffer, and the cost of providing those services therefore increases.
To remedy this, New Jersey adopted the Civil Service system over a century ago in 1908. Indeed, in a wave of reform after World War II, and in reaction to the corrupt local government under Depression Era “bosses” like Hague, New Jersey passed the Constitution of 1947 which overhauled New Jersey’s state and local government. The drafters of the 1947 Constitution enshrined the principal that hiring and promotion should be based on merit, not politics, nepotism, cronyism or bribes. The Constitution specifically provides that “Appointments and promotions in the civil service of the State, and of such political subdivisions [counties and towns] 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….” Indeed, this is why civil service is often referred to as the “merit system.”