Judge strikes down pension law

Bob Galuski, Editor in Chief

The Illinois Pension Reform law, which has been making waves in the state since Gov. Pat Quinn signed it in 2013, took a hit when a Sangamon County judge ruled it unconstitutional.

Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Belz declared the law unconstitutional in a six-page ruling on Nov. 21. And with Belz tossing out the pension reform law, it now must go to the Supreme Court to decide its ultimate fate.

Citing the July case Kanerva v. Weems, Belz said the under the Pension Protection Clause, “it is clear that if something qualifies as a benefit of the enforceable contractual relationship resulting from membership in one of the State’s pension or retirement systems, it cannot be diminished or impaired.”

Belz applied Kanerva v. Weems, a Kansas case that decided the whether or not retiree health benefits can be reduced, to the pension reform law.

Union members, shortly after Quinn signed the bill in December 2013, filed the lawsuit, citing the Illinois State Constitution, especially the parts that stipulate pension benefits as “enforceable contractual relationships” that “shall not be diminished or impaired.”

“The Act without question diminishes and impairs the benefits of membership in State retirement systems,” Belz stated in his ruling. “Illinois Courts have consistently held over time that the Illinois Pension Clause’s protection against the diminishment or impairment of pension benefits is absolute and without exception.”

Belz also struck down the argument that the pension reform law is an exercise of Illinois’ reserved sovereign powers and policing powers.

“The Court finds as a matter of law that the defendants no legally valid defense,” Belz stated in his ruling. “The Pension Protection Clause contains no exception, restriction or limitation for an exercise of the State’s police powers or reserved sovereign powers.”

Quinn signed into law the pension reform in December 2013, behind close doors, finally giving a milestone to Illinois’ long-standing financial struggles.

The law sought to lift some of the financial burden from Illinois by reducing what the state would owe to its employees after retirement. This would be accomplished by changing the terms of the state employee’s pension agreements.

State employee retiree’s would then be getting fewer benefits than what was agreed upon at the beginning of their employment.

Before the ink could dry, backlash against the law bubbled up, and unions across the state prepped for the legal struggle over the bill. Union members, which included Eastern’s own University Professionals of Illinois chapter, helped fuel the legal battle.

Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner, who opposed the pension reform law during elections, will be giving the ruling guidance once Quinn vacates the governor position in just a few weeks.

Bob Galuski can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].