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IL Supreme Court hears pension case

3/11/2015

The Illinois Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in our We Are One Illinois coalition's lawsuit against pension-slashing Senate Bill 1 (SB1). The IFT (as a leading partner of We Are One Illinois) and other plaintiffs previously won a Circuit Court decision that declared that the legislation sharply reducing the modest pensions earned by public-service workers is unconstitutional and "void in its entirety.”

The state appealed that decision to Illinois' highest court, where today coalition attorneys repeated our strong, clear argument: the pension protection clause means what its plain language says — that membership in the state pension systems constitutes "...an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

“Today, we defended teachers, support staff, police officers, firefighters, nurses, caregivers, and other dedicated public servants – as well as the sanctity of our constitution – in the state's highest court,” said IFT President Dan Montgomery. “We have urged the Supreme Court to uphold what the Circuit Court has already affirmed - that our modest benefits are constitutionally protected. Workers and retirees have always paid their share and shouldn't be penalized for politicians' failure to honor their responsibility, first to pay their part and now, to uphold the constitution. Our laws must matter, with regard to retirement security or any issue, and it is the duty of our elected officials to follow them."

In fact, the constitution's pension protection clause was written specifically to prohibit a reduction in pension benefits based on the very claim of fiscal necessity that the State is now citing to justify SB 1.

From the Coalition's filing:

When the drafters of the Illinois Constitution adopted a stand-alone clause specifically protecting public pensions, they had this very sort of case in mind. They wanted to ensure that public workers would receive promised pension benefits, regardless of fiscal circumstances. To that end, the drafters included within the Pension Protection Clause a provision prohibiting the legislature from diminishing pension benefits…

The [Constitutional] delegates who supported the Clause recalled that “civil service employees who retired never had their pensions altered or amended, even during those trying times during the days of the Depression and explained that the Clause was intended to protect pensions “irrespective of the financial condition of a municipality or even the state government.

Read the complete brief here.

At today's hearing, union attorneys reiterated our position that the constitution is the highest law of this State and trumps political expediency, despite the fact that some politicians find that truth inconvenient.

In a statement released by the coalition immediately following today's hearing, Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan said the 2013 pension law is both unconstitutional and grossly unfair:

"Over a lifetime of service, active and retired workers contributed to their pensions faithfully out of every paycheck. The majority of these public servants don't qualify for social security, so their modest pensions are their entire life savings. Make no mistake: we arrived here today due to the failure of politicians to pay their own part, and workers and retirees shouldn't be punished for a problem they didn't create.

“The framers of our constitution knew this day may come, when politicians might seek to avoid keeping their promises, opting instead to deny teachers, first responders, nurses, and other state and university employees and retirees their promised retirement,” Carrigan added. "That is why they made the language in the Illinois Constitution crystal clear. Instead of honoring their responsibility, politicians would place on the backs of Illinois' public servants alone a remedy they claim will rectify their own failure to adequately fund the pension systems in the first place. That conduct is both unconstitutional and unfair, and we are seeking justice today from our state's highest court."

SB 1 slashes cost-of-living adjustments, reducing the value of pension benefits by one-third or more after 20 years in retirement. It also hikes retirement ages by up to five years and makes other unfair, unconstitutional cuts to the pensions of working and retired members of the Teachers' Retirement System, State Employees' Retirement System, and State Universities Retirement System. Due to an injunction obtained by the IFT and others, SB 1 has not been implemented, protecting members from pension cuts while the courts rule on the law's constitutionality.

The IFT is proud of the strategic role we have played to date in the pension fight. We have blocked serious threats to our members' retirement security, and we will continue that effort to ensure that a pension is a promise.

The Illinois Supreme Court is expected to rule on this case before May 31, 2015. Watch ift-aft.org and your inbox for updates as they become available.

GwenHarrison.IFT.PensionPlaintiff

IFT member Gwen Harrison, a named plaintiff in the We Are One Illinois lawsuit, speaks to reporters after today's hearing.

Watch Gwen's full reaction here.

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