Pundits are calling the Illinois Supreme Court ruling that threw out the 2013 pension reform bill a crushing defeat that will spell the state’s fiscal doom.
Not the fiscal doom part – the state is, in fact, doomed over the pension mess. But the ruling itself was a resounding victory.
For we remaining merry few who believe that the state and federal constitutions actually mean something, the May 8 ruling was a triumph for constitutional principles. State lawmakers wanted to do something that the Illinois Constitution expressly says is a no-no, and all seven justices unanimously told them to go pound sand down the budget hole that their policies created.
The General Assembly, after years of fiddling while Rome burned, passed a law that attempted to fix the pension system, which has $111 billion in unfunded liabilities and climbing. It sought to lower pension benefits already accrued by existing state workers, and for retirees now drawing those pensions.
The problem was that pesky provision in the 1970 Illinois Constitution that says such benefits “shall not be diminished or impaired.” So the state’s defense, I kid you not, was that the crisis allowed it to invoke “sovereign” or “police” powers to ignore the provision.
In other words, the state tried to use the same emergency-powers clause that Dean Wormer invoked to kick John Belushi and the rest of Delta house out of Faber College.
Lawmakers’ blatant attempt to help the pension bill’s odds by exempting judges from the reforms fell flat. Maybe, in part, because the justices undoubtedly knew that if they upheld the law, lawmakers would have filed a bill first thing the following morning imposing the reforms on them as well.
The justices in their 38-page ruling eviscerated the pension bill and the thinking behind it. Much of the media and pundit attention has been focused on two fronts: one, that the phrase “shall not be diminished or impaired” should be clear to anyone with a fifth-grade education or higher; and two, that much of the blame for the crisis can be laid at the feet of the very lawmakers who had the better part of a century to prevent it from happening. Lawmakers shorted the funds for decades while colluding with union leaders to enact ever-plusher benefits.
But a very profound conclusion in the high court’s ruling hasn’t received a fraction of the attention it deserves – namely, that the state’s argument that the constitution can be disregarded when they determine a crisis is happening is a bunch of hooey.
In a day and age in which both major political parties use constitutional principles to wipe their feet, the ruling was the cracking of a window for someone in a stifling room. For those of us who lament that we get molested before boarding an airplane, that the government spies on our communications, and that SWAT teams in tanks can break down doors over a baggie of weed, the ruling was somebody putting down a foot.
As I hinted earlier, I’m one of those old-fashioned weirdos who thinks that the constitution is the law of the land and that it shouldn’t be ignored or disregarded when it gets in the way or protects something or someone you don’t like. Guilty as charged. And no, I don’t own a Gadsden Flag.
The court ruled that crisis is “not an excuse to abandon the rule of law,” but “a summons to defend it,” and eloquently laid out the pitfalls of granting state lawmakers the power to wield crisis to ignore constitutional law:
“…if police powers could be invoked to nullify express constitutional rights and protections whenever the legislature (or other branches of government) felt that economic or other exigencies warranted, it is not merely pension benefits of public employees that would be in jeopardy. No rights or property would be safe from the State …
“Under the State’s reasoning, the only limit on the police power would be the scope of the emergency. The legislature could do whatever it felt it needed to do under the circumstances. And more than that, through its funding decisions, it could create the very emergency conditions used to justify its suspension of the rights conferred and protected by the constitution.”
I understand the bellyaching about the pension ruling. Illinois is in very deep water – about one dollar in four of the state general fund now goes to pensions – and it’s getting deeper with every passing year. But trust me, we do not want to give this state’s corrupt and depraved lawmakers that kind of power.
There is talk of asking voters to amend the state constitution to modify the pension protection clause. Regardless of how you feel about that prospect, or how far it should go, that’s the way to change things. We the people ratified that constitution, and we the people decided that the clause needed to be included, so that decision is ours, and ours alone.
Do we want our taxes doubled or worse to bail out Illinois public-sector pensions? Absolutely not. But empowering the sick state lawmakers who got us into this mess to not only disregard the constitution in times of crisis, but also to have the ability to determine what constitutes a crisis to begin with, would have been a disaster.
In short, the justices just took the sharp scissors and the matchbooks away from the toddlers, and we, the people, are in their debt.
• Senior reporter Kevin P. Craver has won more than 70 state and national journalism awards during his 14 years with the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4618 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.