Friday, May 8, 2015
The Illinois Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state's efforts to cut public pensions violated the state constitutional Pension Protection Clause.
The case means that the state can't balance its budget on the backs of state workers who are members of a public retirement system. It also means that the state supreme court takes the state constitutional Pension Clause seriously.
The case arose after the state legislature, and former Governor Quinn signed, Senate Bill 1 in late 2013. Senate Bill 1, which became Public Act 98-599, cut state workers' public pension benefits in several ways. State workers sued, arguing, among other things that the cuts violated the state constitutional Pension Protection Clause.
The Pension Protection Clause says that "[m]embership in any pension or retirement system of the State *** shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired." The Clause was added in the 1970 constitution in order to protect state workers from pension cuts in a system that had been (and since has been) chronically underfunded.
The Illinois high court's ruling says that the Clause means what it says. In fact, the court said exactly that: "We held in [Kanerva v. Weems] that the clause means precisely what it says." And this means that "once an individual begins work and becomes a member of a public retirement system, any subsequent changes to the Pension Code that would diminish the benefits conferred by membership in the retirement system cannot be applied to that individual." The court called the question "easily resolved."
The court also rejected the state's argument that its fiscal situation is so dire that it has to dip into public pension funds by using its "reserved sovereign powers." The court said that things might be bad, but they've been bad before, and will be bad again. It's no reason to violate the Pension Protection Clause. The court also said that other provisions of the 1970 constitution contained limitations or suspension provisions; not so the Public Pension Clause.