Illinois Supreme Court Expedites Pension Reform Appeal

Illinois flagThe Illinois Supreme Court on Wednesday complied with a request by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to fast track the hearing over the state’s pension reform law, which a lower court found unconstitutional.

From Reuters:

The court ordered public labor unions and retiree groups challenging the law and the state to file their briefs in January and February with oral arguments to be scheduled in March. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan had asked the court last week to speed up the appeal process.

The state asked for oral arguments as early as Jan. 22 and no later than March 10 to enable Illinois’ upcoming budget to incorporate about $1 billion in cost-savings under the law, or adequate spending cuts or tax increases to offset those savings.

The pension reform law was supposed to go into effect on June 1 but was put on hold by Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge John Belz in May pending his Nov. 21 ruling in five consolidated lawsuits. The state’s new fiscal year begins July 1 and the legislature usually passes a budget by May 31.

The law’s opponents asked the supreme court on Tuesday not to speed up the case.

The law raises retirement ages and suspends COLAs for some workers, and makes state contributions to the pension system enforceable by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Fast-Tracking of Illinois Pension Case Could Be Blocked

Illinois flag

Last week, Illinois asked the state Supreme Court to expedite the hearing over the state’s pension reform law.

But on Sunday, attorneys representing the state workers and retirees said they could block the attempt to fast track the case. Such a move could drastically change the timeline for the lawsuit’s hearing.

From the Southern Illinoisan:

In a move that could play a significant role in how Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner crafts his first budget this spring, the lawyers say Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s bid to put the case on a fast track is unwarranted.

“We do not believe there is any need to impose an emergency schedule,” said attorney John Fitzgerald, who is among a team of lawyers representing retirees. “We see no need to depart from the rules.”

On Thursday, Madigan asked the high court to move quickly in hearing the case because of the financial ramifications the pension changes will have on the state budget.


Madigan suggested the court schedule oral arguments for as early as Jan. 22 or no later than mid-March.

Attorneys for the retirees, who say the expedited schedule is unnecessary, have until Tuesday to file their objections to the motion.

Without the expedited schedule, the deadline for filing the first significant set of records in the case wouldn’t occur until the final week of January.

After that, the typical court schedule calls for both sides in the lawsuit to trade paperwork for nearly three months. Once that is completed, the high court would then schedule oral arguments.

Under that scenario, the court could hear the case as early as May. If they miss the May docket, the next time the judges are scheduled to hear oral arguments is September.

Following the argument phase, the court could take months to issue a ruling. In a similar case regarding health insurance costs, the court took nearly 10 months to overturn the state’s attempt to force retirees to pay a portion of their pensions toward that expense.

Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Belz ruled last month that the law was unconstitutional.

Judge: Illinois Pension Reform Law Is Unconstitutional

United States Constitution

A Circuit Court judge ruled Friday afternoon that Illinois’ sweeping pension reform law is unconstitutional.

Judge John Belz said in his ruling that the Illinois constitutional makes a promise to protect employee pension benefits.

The ruling will be appealed and will soon head to the state Supreme Court.

From Crain’s Chicago Business:

Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge John Belz ruled today that the state’s pension reform law is unconstitutional, setting up an immediate appeal to the state’s highest court.

“The State of Illinois made a constitutionally protected promise to its employees concerning their pension benefits,” Belz said in his seven-page ruling. “Under established and uncontroverted Illinois law, the State of Illinois cannot break this promise.”

While the state lost this round, the constitutional question ultimately has to be resolved by the Illinois Supreme Court. The longer the case takes to get there, the longer state finances remain in limbo and the longer any “Plan B” for pension reform goes undiscussed.

“Seven people will decide this at the end of the day,” said Illinois Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Skokie, one of the principal co-authors of the pension reform law. “It’s a victory for the state to get it to the Supreme Court faster. The state suffers from uncertainty. Ultimately what matters most is how we resolve this problem eventually.”

The decision was widely expected, given the state Supreme Court’s ruling in Kanerva vs. Weems, a similar case in July testing whether retiree health care benefits can be reduced. The justices ruled that the state constitution’s pension protection clause is “aimed at protecting the right to receive the promised retirement benefits, not the adequacy of the funding to pay for them.”

Proponents of the reform law called today’s ruling “significant”, but not a be-all-end-all judgment by any means. That’s because the Illinois Supreme Court, who will hear arguments on the law at some point in the coming months, will have the final say.

The state has 30 days to appeal the ruling up to the Supreme Court.

First Ruling on Illinois Pension Reform Law Expected Friday

Illinois capitol

Sangamon County Judge John Belz spent Thursday hearing arguments for and against Illinois’ major pension overhaul.

On Friday, he is expected to release his ruling on the law. If he declares it unconstitutional, the debate could move to the halls of the Supreme Court sooner than later.

More from the Chicago Tribune:

[Judge Belz] could move to hold hearings in the case, or he could declare the measure unconstitutional, which would likely send the matter directly to the state Supreme Court.

Even then, it could take several more months before the justices make a final decision, meaning Rauner may not get the clarity he’s seeking in time to drive cost-saving pension changes during the spring legislative session.

Belz held a hearing Thursday, and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office argued the pensions could be modified in times of emergency — such as the financial straits caused by the state’s worst-funded pension system in the nation.

A battery of attorneys for state employees and retirees argued strenuously the law should be tossed out because it is unconstitutional — a move that would put it on a likely path to the Illinois Supreme Court.

In July, the high court threw out a different law that cut health-care benefits that had been guaranteed to retirees, saying lawmakers had overstepped what they were allowed to do. That decision alone buoyed the hopes of state pensioners — as well as the city of Chicago retirees who don’t want their own pensions plans reduced.

Friday’s ruling is key because it is the first step toward determining whether officials can scale back public pensions in any way once they are set.

Unions believe the law represents an unconstitutional breach in contract. From the Chicago Tribune:

Unions representing government workers are asking Judge John Belz to declare unconstitutional a law approved nearly a year ago that aims to rein in costs of a retirement system reeling from more than $100 billion in debt.

At the heart of the pension issue is a clause in the Illinois Constitution that says membership in any state pension system is an “enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

Employee unions argued that the pension law, which curbs annual cost-of-living pension increases for current retirees and delays the age for retirement for many current public workers, clearly violated those protections.

Illinois governor-elect Bruce Rauner believes the law will be overturned by the Supreme Court. Rauner has said in the past that the law doesn’t go far enough to reduce pension liabilities.