New Jersey Civil Service - Merit Not Politics

Many people complain about civil service.  They complain that it limits supervisors’ ability to hire, fire and discipline as they think is in their organization’s best interest.  Many in the general public complaint that New Jersey civil service protects “bad apples.”  Many employees and applicants dislike civil service because they believe it makes it to hard to get hired, promoted or transferred, and that it rewards test taking ability rather than competence.  There is some truth in all these complaints. 

However, these complaints miss the point.  There is no perfect system.  Civil service was the result of a cost/benefit analysis.  Like much in life, civil service is a tradeoff between a decrease in efficiency and an increase in fairness and honesty, which hopefully will increase efficiency in the long run.  In New Jersey’s case it was a great trade.

New Jersey’s history of corruption in state and local government shows that hiring was a political game.  There was a “spoils system” where election winners awarded jobs – including many “no show” jobs – to their supporters.  Many jobs were obtained by outright bribery, voluntary or coerced.  Hiring, firing, promotion and discipline were often based solely on nepotism, cronyism, favoritism, and discrimination.  It was disgraceful.  This is why civil service was adopted – to ensure that jobs were awarded on merit, not who you knew, who you supported, who you paid, or what your gender or skin color was.  New Jersey’s Civil Service System is far from perfect, but New Jersey is much better place because of it.

Civil Service was first enacted by the Legislature in 1908, spurred by the early Twentieth Century Progressive Movement.  The New Jersey Civil Service Commission was established to regulate employment practices.  In 1947, in large part as a reaction to the corruption of the Frank Hague political machine in Jersey City, a constitutional convention was convened at Rutgers University.  It adopted the New Jersey Constitution of 1947, which attempted to reform many aspects of state and local government, including employment law.  Article VII, section 1 of the new State Constitution 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, civil service was given constitutional protection, and it was no longer at risk of elimination by a hostile Legislature.  The key was that the new Constitution required that employment decisions must be based on merit, not politics.

The New Jersey Civil Service Act and the Civil Service Commission’s regulations govern the Civil Service System.  The Civil Service Commission’s name was changed in the 1980s to the New Jersey Merit System Board, which with the Department of Personnel regulated state and local civil service employment.  However, in 2008, the Department of Personnel was abolished and the Merit System Board was again renamed the Civil Service Commission, which took over the duties of both.

Thus in New Jersey, the Civil Service System is wholly governed by state law.  Unless a federal statute or a Federal Constitutional provision supersedes, relief for civil service violations is available only in the New Jersey’s administrative agencies and state courts, not the Federal Judiciary.

The Civil Service Act itself explains that New Jersey’s public policy is:

a.       to select and advance employees on the basis of their relative knowledge, skills and abilities;

b.      [] to provide public officials with appropriate appointment, supervisory and other personnel authority to execute properly their constitutional and statutory responsibilities;


c.       [] 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;


d.      [] to ensure equal employment opportunity at all levels of the public service; and

e.  [] 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 bottom line is that hiring, firing, promotions, discipline – in short, all employment decisions – must be made on merit, abilities and fitness alone, and when possible, merit should be determined by testing.

As Judge Stern of the Appellate Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court explained, “the design of civil service [is] to secure tenure during good behavior... 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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