During the Revolutionary War in 1776, the first constitution of the state of New Jersey was written to create a government framework for the state. The constitution has been rewritten twice to address issues that arose with the original and subsequent versions.
In the mid-1800s, New Jersey citizens wanted a more democratic form of state government so the 1844 constitution was drafted, providing for the separation of powers among the legislative, judicial, and executive branches and including a bill of rights. The new constitution also gave the people (instead of the legislature) the right to elect the governor.
Today's constitution was adopted in 1947. The governor's powers were increased and the term of office extended from three to four years. The state court system was also reorganized.
The constitution can be amended through a resolution introduced in the legislature and approved by three-fifths of both houses or by majority vote in two consecutive years. Voters must then approve the amendment in the following general election.
The chief of the executive branch is the governor who is elected every four years to a four-year term. A governor cannot serve more than two consecutive terms.
The governor officially resides at Drumthwacket, located in Princeton but works out of an office in the State House in Trenton. Constitutionally, New Jersey’s chief executive is one of the most powerful governors in the United States. In addition to overseeing the departments, agencies boards and commissions that make up the executive branch, the governor signs bills into law and can call the legislature into special session. The governor has the power to grant pardons and is the only person with the authority to call in the National Guard.
To become governor, a person must be
- at least 30 years old,
- a U.S. citizen for at least 20 years, and
- a New Jersey resident for seven years prior to the election.
The heads of state agencies are appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate before taking office. Officials appointed by the governor include the following:
- Attorney General
- Secretary of State
- State Treasurer
- Secretary of the Department of Agriculture and Commissioners of the Departments of Banking and Insurance, Children and Families, Community Affairs, Corrections, Education, Environmental Protection, Health and Senior Services, Human Services, Labor and Workforce Development, Military and Veterans Affairs, and Transportation
- Judges (including the State Supreme Court)
- County Prosecutors
- County Boards of Election and Taxation
- Members of Boards and Commissions
The Senate and General Assembly make up the legislative branch. The Senate has 40 members, and the General Assembly has 80 members. One senator and two assembly members are elected from each of the 40 districts of New Jersey. The Senate and Assembly chambers are located in the State House in Trenton.
The Legislature's main job is to enact laws. The Legislature can also propose amendments to the New Jersey Constitution.
The Senate and General Assembly meet for about 40 sessions a year. Sessions are held on Mondays and Thursdays. During the rest of the week, the legislators often hold committee meetings or public hearings. Since the legislature does not meet year-round, legislative work is a part-time job. Most legislators have another job as well.
The leader of the Senate is the Senate President. The Speaker of the General Assembly heads that body.
The President and the Speaker schedule meetings and determine which bills will be considered within their respective houses. They also lead the legislative sessions.
While both houses introduce and vote on bills, the Senate and Assembly have individual powers, too. The Senate approves the governor’s appointees to official positions. The Assembly can bring impeachment charges but the Senate is the court of impeachment in New Jersey, where the charges are tried. Any bills requiring revenue to be raised start out in the Assembly. But, by custom, the Senate handles the state budget.
A legislator must live in the district he or she represents. Senators have to be at least 30 and have to live in New Jersey for at least four years before being elected. Members of the Assembly must be at least 21 and state residents for two years.
There is also leadership within the political parties in both houses. The majority and minority leaders and the assistant leaders develop each party's policies on the issues raised in the bills. Additionally, there are many committees that review legislation. Learn more about the role of committees and the process of making a law in "How a Bill Becomes a Law."
The Office of Legislative Services (OLS), a non-partisan agency, provides legal advice and research support to both houses. OLS staff also drafts the bills and resolutions. In addition, each house has partisan staff that performs similar functions, but only for their respective parties. Each legislator also has his or her own district office with staff to handle constituent issues.
The judicial branch decides how state laws should be applied. The governor appoints judges to the Supreme and Superior courts with the Senate's approval. The judges serve seven-year terms, but after they have been re-appointed once, they can serve until they are 70.
The highest court in the judiciary branch is the state Supreme Court. This court hears cases involving constitutional problems and other major matters. The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and six associate justices.
The chief justice investigates complaints against the courts, supervises the clerks and court workers, and oversees the court finances.
The state Superior Court is divided into the Appellate, Law, and Chancery divisions. Superior Court is where most trials take place. The Appellate Division hears appeals of decisions from lower courts and state agencies. Law hears cases in its Criminal Division and Civil Division. Chancery consists of a General Equity Division and Family Division. General Equity cases involve matters such as contracts. The Family Division deals with family and children's legal matters.