A Separation of Powers Anniversary

On this date in 1992, the Supreme Court issued a landmark separation of powers opinion in Communications Workers of America v. Florio, 130 N.J. 439 (1992).  There, state employees and some members of the New Jersey Legislature sued Governor Florio and other executive branch officials in two cases, which were later merged.  Plaintiffs sought a declaration that layoffs that defendants had scheduled within the executive branch violated the Appropriations Amendments Act, Senate Bill No. 996, Laws of 1992, chapter 99, which purported to require that reductions in personnel be achieved by laying off managerial or other persons outside of collective bargaining units.

Plaintiffs sought a stay of the Governor’s planned layoffs pending resolution of the lawsuits.  The Appellate Division denied a stay.  The matter went to the Supreme Court, which unanimously affirmed the Appellate Division’s ruling.  Justice Garibaldi wrote the Court’s opinion.

The Court presented a detailed analysis of the respective powers of the Legislature and the Governor under the New Jersey Constitution, powers that Justice Garibaldi recognized have never been the subject of “watertight” separation.  “The Legislature’s power to appropriate funds for the operation of State government” went up against “[t]he Governor’s power and duty to execute the laws.”  Though the Appropriations Amendments Act, like all other legislation, was to be presumed valid, “the Legislature’s power to attach conditions to appropriations is limited by the doctrine of separation of powers, as well as by other constitutional provisions.”

“[F[]irmly established in our constitutional law,” Justice Garibaldi stated, is the principle that the Governor has direct and extensive control over the staffing and resources of each department of the executive branch.”  The Legislature’s attempt to take that power for itself warranted “the most thorough and careful review to guard against the encroachment of one co-equal branch of government on another.”

After discussing prior caselaw involving clashes between legislative and gubernatorial authority, Justice Garibaldi ruled that the Appropriations Amendments Act was unconstitutional to the extent that it purported to dictate how executive branch layoffs were to occur.  “The Governor had the ability– and indeed the duty– to make the necessary personnel cuts so as to enable the agencies to continue to function as efficiently and effectively as possible.  Not only was the legislative mandate of how to make the cuts unnecessary for the effectuation of the statutory scheme, but the Legislature’s attempt to ‘micromanage’ the staffing and resource allocations in administering the appropriated funds was a serious intrusion on the Governor’s authority and ability to perform his constitutionally-delegated functions.”

The Legislature was entitled to, and did, reduce the amount of money appropriated for salaries and wages in executive branch departments, thus necessitating layoffs.  But the Legislature exceeded its constitutional authority when it took the next step and tried to “control how those reduced appropriations would be administered by specifying which employees should and should not be laid off.”

Rather than void the Appropriations Amendments Act entirely, the Court acted to effectuate the Legislature’s intent to have some voice in personnel reductions by restoring language from the original Appropriations Act, prior to the offending amendments, which stated that “[w]henever possible,” layoffs should exclude employees who provide direct services, as well as career State employees.  “Because the ultimate authority to manage Executive affairs remains with the Executive branch, the discretionary guidance contained in the original [Appropriations Act] can be accommodated within our constitutional scheme of separation of powers.”