A New Jersey appeals panel on Thursday struck down a rule adopted by the Christie administration that Democrats and labor unions argued undermined the meritocracy of the civil service system for tens of thousands of state government workers.

The rule, adopted in 2014 by the Civil Service Commission, grouped certain state employees into so-called job bands - groups of workers with similar titles and responsibilities - and allowed advancement within those groups without requiring competitive examinations.

It thus gave managers greater discretion in deciding whom to promote. Gov. Christie had argued that the move would make government more efficient.

"For over a century, the Civil Service System has been based on the idea that people are appointed and promoted based on a system of objectively determined merit and fitness. From his first day in office, Gov. Christie has been obsessed with dismantling this fair, transparent system, which protects the public from patronage and discrimination," said Hetty Rosenstein, state director of the Communications Workers of America.

The CWA had sued the commission, joined by another union and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

"So, I am extremely heartened that the court repudiated Christie's sneaky scheme to dismantle civil service by ignoring the will of the people, the Legislature, the law, and our system of checks and balances," she said in a statement.

The Legislature, using its constitutional authority to invalidate executive branch rules that are inconsistent with legislative intent, passed resolutions arguing that the rule violated key provisions of civil service law.

When the rule was first proposed in 2013, lawmakers passed a resolution declaring that job-banding was "contrary to the spirit, intent, and plain meaning" of the constitution, referenced in the Civil Service Act, "that requires that promotions be based on merit and fitness to be ascertained, as far as practicable, by examination, which, as far as practicable, shall be competitive."

The Civil Service Commission - which is composed of five members, each appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate - amended parts of the proposed rule to try to allay lawmakers' concerns, but maintained the key change eliminating the requirement for competitive exams.

The banding rule applied to state employees, not local government workers. Public safety jobs, such as police officers and firefighters, also were excluded.

It only affected promotions, not firing practices.

"The Legislature reasonably found that job banding without competitive promotional examinations was inconsistent with the legislative intent reflected in the plain language of the relevant provisions" of the Civil Service Act, Superior Court Judge Douglas M. Fasciale wrote for the three-judge panel.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said the decision affirmed "the Legislature's constitutional lawmaking authority and reaffirms the balance of power that is vital to democracy."

"It reinforces the basic principle that the laws of New Jersey must be respected by the executive branch of government and that departments and agencies cannot ignore or invalidate the Legislature's intent," he said in a statement.

A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office said the office was reviewing the decision.

Christie's office did not respond to a request for comment.

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