Should state employees receive stronger protection of their constitutional rights than the rest of us?
That’s what one judge effectively said today in an order ruling that the modest reforms to Illinois’ pension systems enacted last year violate the state constitution’s pension clause, which says that “[m]embership in a pension or retirement system of the State . . . shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”
In the decision, Judge John W. Belz of Sangamon County Circuit Court rejected the state’s argument that, even if the recent changes to state pension systems do “diminish or impair” some benefits, the state’s police powers allow it to make those changes in order to avoid the fiscal and economic disaster that will occur if the state cannot bring its pension costs under control. The pension clause doesn’t mention any exceptions, the judge said, so there are no exceptions.
That may seem reasonable on the surface, but that’s not how the courts treat the provisions of the constitution that protect private citizens’ rights. In fact, whether we like it or not, the courts generally do not consider any constitutional right to be absolute.
For example, the state and federal constitutions guarantee the right to free speech and don’t list any exceptions – yet the government is nonetheless allowed to infringe people’s free-speech rights when a court concludes that an infringement on free speech is “narrowly tailored” to serve a “compelling governmental interest,” and in some cases with even less justification than that.
The courts also routinely uphold laws that infringe constitutional rights that are not considered “fundamental” unless the party challenging a law can show that it does not even arguably serve any genuine governmental purpose – something that is almost always impossible to do.
So today’s decision on pension rights essentially says that government employees’ pension rights get stronger protection than any other constitutional right we have. And it doesn’t even explain why.
In fact, there’s no reason to believe the Illinois Constitution’s framers intended to give government employees a “super right” to taxpayer dollars that is enforceable regardless of the cost or consequences. All they intended to do was to make pension rights contractual in nature, rather than a mere gratuity that the state can take away at any time without justification. In fact, the courts have allowed the government to modify its contractual obligations where necessary to serve the public interest. Therefore, the state should be allowed to modify pension benefits under the same circumstances.
The case will now head to the Illinois Supreme Court. Although that court took an expansive view of the type of benefits protected by the pension clause in a recent decision holding that the clause protects retirees’ health benefits, it has not ruled on whether the pension clause’s guarantee is absolute.
For taxpayers’ sake, let’s hope the Supreme Court rules the state is allowed to make pension changes to avoid disaster.
And if it won’t do that, then it should give private citizens absolute protection for their constitutional rights, too. There can be no justification for making pension recipients specially privileged citizens whose rights and economic interests trump everyone else’s.