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Thursday, May 22, 2014 05:00 pm

Pension lawsuit takes step forward...carefully

Belz doesn’t want case coming back to him

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit over Illinois’ pension reform law won’t get a decision on the defendants’ arguments just yet, thanks to an informal ruling today by a Sangamon County judge who said he wants to do the case by the book so it doesn’t get sent back to him later.

 Sangamon County circuit judge John Belz today denied a request by several groups of current state employees and retirees to decide whether the state’s defense is constitutional. Instead, Belz demanded that the plaintiffs decide how to organize themselves in the class-action lawsuit.

The case arose after Illinois lawmakers approved a package of changes to the pension benefits of state employees and retirees. The state employees and retirees claim the changes diminish their benefits, which would violate the Illinois constitution. However, the state denies that the changes are a diminishment, claiming also that the state’s fiscal crisis justifies the use of so-called “police powers” that trump the constitution.

“It’s bogus,” said attorney John Myers, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. “How can you justify doing away with a constitutional right?”

In today’s hearing, a panel of six attorneys for the plaintiffs asked Belz to quickly strike down the state’s “police powers” argument. Doing so would have toppled the state’s defense entirely, the plaintiffs claimed.

Three attorneys representing Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan conversely asked Belz to first address the certification of the plaintiff class. In class-action lawsuits, the class of alleged victims must be “certified” by the court, which amounts to determining whether they share common circumstances and are similarly subject to harm.

For the plaintiffs’ attorneys, that means figuring out how to organize retirees who are already drawing their pensions, current employees whose pensions are still accruing, and people in other circumstances. 

Belz noted that Illinois law requires him to certify the class before proceeding with the rest of the case. He said he wanted to deal with issues like class certification before getting to the merits of the case so that the case doesn’t bounce back and forth on multiple appeals between the Illinois Supreme Court and his courtroom.

“We’ve got a lot of Venn diagrams to draw about who the plaintiffs are so we have as much overlap as possible,” said Don Craven, a Springfield attorney representing the plaintiffs. 

Attorneys for the state also revealed part of their defense strategy at the hearing, saying they would call three witnesses to justify the state’s invocation of police powers. The state first plans to offer testimony from an actuarial expert, who will discuss the scale and effect of the state’s $100 billion unfunded pension liability. Next, the state will call an economist to address the importance for the state’s economy of allowing the pension reforms to proceed. Finally, the state will offer the perspective of a budget expert who will testify about what will happen to the state’s finances if the reforms are struck down.

Myers, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, objected to Belz’s decision allowing the state to offer their expert testimony in the form of an affidavit instead of in person.  He said the plaintiffs’ legal team will definitely want to question the witnesses under oath.

Belz set a June 13 hearing for the case, ordering the plaintiffs’ attorneys to file a motion for class certification by then. 

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.

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