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.

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.