Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge John Belz ruled against Illinois’ pension reform law (Senate Bill 1) on Nov. 21. Belz’s ruling said that the state’s increasing pension payments do not provide legal justification to reduce the pension benefits of current state employees.
In the six-page decision Belz stated that, ““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” and “The Court ‘may not rewrite the pension protection clause to include restrictions and limitations that the drafters did not express and the citizens of Illinois did not approve.”
In the case, the State had argued that it would be able to rely on its sovereign “police” powers, or more simply put, its ability to take extreme actions during a crisis. However, counsel representing the law’s challengers argued that the constitutional protection of pension benefits is absolute and the state can never use its sovereign powers to justify benefit changes.
The judge ruled that the law was void in its entirety, despite a severability clause, because, “legislation is not severable where, as here, it is a broad legislative package intended to impose sweeping changes in a subject area, and the unconstitutional provisions of that package are important elements of it.”
The ruling was not unexpected in light of a July Illinois Supreme Court ruling that retiree health care benefits cannot be reduced. That ruling stated that Illinois’ 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.”