Illinois may be fighting an uphill battle on Wednesday in defending the constitutionality of a 2013 public pension reform law before the state supreme court.
Illinois justices will hear the state's appeal of a Nov. 21 county court ruling that tossed out the law. In the ruling, Sangamon County Judge John Belz drew on an unrelated state supreme court opinion that found the Illinois Constitution makes it "plain" and "unambiguous" that pensions cannot be reduced.
The prior ruling, in a case involving retiree health care, essentially handcuffs the supreme court, said Max Schanzenbach, a professor at Northwestern University's law school. The state's highest court "had a chance to narrow the pension clause and they chose not to," Schanzenbach said.
In the current case, Illinois claims payments on its $105 billion unfunded pension liability are making it impossible to pay for core services like health care and public safety, which are "police powers" obligations also delineated in the state constitution. But labor unions and retirees challenging the pension cuts contend the constitution prohibits any reduction to retirement benefits.