Supreme Court justices are skeptical of pension reform arguments

By Meredith Wilson

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — During oral arguments Wednesday, Illinois Supreme Court justices  found fault with Senate Bill 1, a law to alleviate the state’s financial burden of public employee pensions.

Justice Robert Thomas interrupted the attorney for the state, Solicitor General Carolyn Shapiro, several times, asking her about the basic facts of her briefs and the culpability of the state in the pension crisis.

In particular, Thomas hammered Shapiro about the extent of the state’s emergency powers, which she contended could be invoked  to trump a constitutional clause protecting pensions.

“If the court holds that the state can violate the constitution in this case, do we not give license to the state to modify its own contractual obligations for any reason?” Thomas asked her.

Shapiro replied that the state could not invoke its emergency powers “willy-nilly.” Thomas did not seem convinced, asking the question three separate times.

“Not to be redundant,” Thomas said.

The other six justices remained relatively quiet throughout the session. Justice Rita Garman asked Shapiro to cite other cases that allowed for emergency powers, but in general seemed unsympathetic to the state’s case.

Solicitor General Shapiro argued that the constitutional clause protecting pensions could be seen as a contractual obligation that’s subject to alteration. Shapiro said that the pension crisis created a drastic enough scenario to  justify the government’s invoking emergency powers in order to salvage the state’s pension system.

SB1 aims at fully funding state pensions over time by capping the level of salaries subject to pension benefits, reducing the amount of annual cost-of-living increases, and increasing employee contributions. The state’s unfunded pension liabilities exceed $100 billion.

The law was declared unconstitutional by the Sangamon County Circuit Court in December of 2013. Judge John Belz ruled that a constitutional clause declaring that pension benefits could not be “diminished or impaired” is “absolute and without exception.”

On the steps of the courthouse, Michael Kerrigan, president of the Illinois American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations was confident that the Supreme Court would rule against the state.

“We believe they [the Supreme Court justices] will agree that this pension theft litigation is unconstitutional,” Kerrigan said

According to the Institute for Illinois’ Fiscal Sustainability, the research arm of the Civic Federation, Illinois faced $104.6 billion in unfunded pension liability at the end of June 2014, the highest in the nation.

In July of 2013, the state Supreme Court ruled 6-1 against an argument that the state could invoke its emergency powers to increase what state retirees would pay for their health care. Many see this ruling as predictive of how the Court will rule on SB1.

Justice Charles Freeman wrote in his opinion: “We may not rewrite the pension protection clause to include restrictions and limitations that the drafters did not express and the citizens of Illinois did not approve.”

It’s unknown when the Court will hand down its ruling on SB1.

Photo at top: Illinois Supreme Court building. (Meredith Wilson/Medill)