- Associated Press - Monday, March 14, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - The New Jersey Supreme Court, weighing whether a 2011 law improperly ended public pensioners’ cost-of-living raises, questioned the arguments from the Christie administration as well as attorneys for plaintiffs in the long-running feud over pensions.

The court heard oral arguments on Monday in the case that reaches back to a nearly five-year-old law passed by a Democrat-led Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie that suspended cost-of-living adjustments.

It’s the latest case to go before the court in a battle between the Christie administration and pensioners and unions. Last year, the court delivered the Christie administration a victory by declining to require the governor to make specific payments to the pension as required under the same 2011 law.

A group of retired prosecutors brought the case, arguing the law violated contractual rights to the pay raises. Public unions also support their effort.

The state argues a 1997 law establishing the right applies to pensions, not the adjustments, setting a high bar for what’s considered a right.

Charles Ouslander, a plaintiff representing himself, argued that the 1997 law created a nonforfeitable right to receive benefits, which cannot be reduced, except for medical benefits. Ouslander argued that by excluding medical benefits specifically, cost-of-living increases, then were included.

Assistant Attorney General Jean Reilly, though, argued that the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the 1997 law incorrectly applied the Legislature’s intent.

The justices seemed skeptical of both sides.

Justice Anne Patterson questioned whether the statute clearly expresses a contractual right.

“Why isn’t it a simple proposition that under this very high standard that governs contract cases … that if there’s an ambiguity, it’s game over?” Patterson asked.

Justice Barry Albin questioned whether a reasonable person would think the 1997 could possibly not include the adjustments.

“How do you think normal people read this? How are the citizens of this state … supposed to guide their lives if they cannot read a statute and expect the plain language of the statute to rule the day?” Albin asked.

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