The Illinois Supreme Court handed down one opinion on Thursday, April 4. In Piccioli v. The Board of Trustees of the Teachers’ Retirement System et al., the court ruled that a union lobbyist qualified for a public pension under a repealed law by spending one day as a substitute teacher.

Piccioli v. The Board of Trustees of the Teachers’ Retirement System et al.

By Michael T. Reagan, Law Offices of Michael T. Reagan

This case, like Carmichael v. Laborers’ & Retirement Board, 2018 IL 122793, deals with pension issues which have arisen involving public union employees seeking pension benefits from the pension funds relevant to their particular occupations. Here, a sharply divided court decided on the basis of a four to three vote that this plaintiff, who worked as a lobbyist for the Illinois Federation of Teachers for many years and who, pursuant to the statute under examination, obtained a substitute teaching certificate, worked for one day as a substitute teacher, and paid in a cash contribution for his prior union service, was able to obtain a pension from the Teachers’ Retirement System. The new legislation required that the applicant had to be certified as a teacher on or before the effective date of the legislation in 2007, apply to the TRS within six months after the effective date of the legislation, and pay into the system for the prior union service, all of which this plaintiff did. In 2011, the Chicago Tribune published both an article and an editorial identifying plaintiff by name and criticizing this legislation. In express response to that negative media coverage, in 2012 the General Assembly repealed the 2007 legislation, and also declared the relevant section of that earlier legislation “void ab initio … as that paragraph furnishes no vested rights because it violates multiple provisions of the 1970 Illinois Constitution….”

By this action, plaintiff sought injunctive relief and a declaratory judgment that the retroactive appeal in 2012 of the 2007 amendment violated the pension protection clause. The circuit court of Sangamon County agreed with the defendant trustees of the TRS that the effective date cutoff in the 2007 legislation, limiting benefits to employees who met the eligibility criteria as of that date, rendered the enactment to be prohibited special legislation. The circuit court declared the provision unconstitutional and void ab initio. Plaintiff brought this appeal directly to the supreme court under Rule 302(a)(1).

Justice Burke, writing for herself, Chief Justice Karmeier and Justices Kilbride and Neville, found that the statute was not special legislation, reversed the circuit court, and remanded for the entry of summary judgment in favor of plaintiff. The court first rejected plaintiff’s argument that the defendants lacked standing to attack the constitutionality of the 2007 amendment. It was not the defendants who were seeking judicial redress, but rather plaintiff.  In the course of its special legislation analysis, the majority found “that the cutoff date … was rationally related to a legitimate government interest in offering pension benefits to current employees while, at the same time, containing costs by excluding future employees from those benefits.”

As a consequence of that determination that the 2007 amendment was not special legislation, the majority then held that because the opportunity of which the plaintiff availed himself was a pension benefit, it was protected by the pension protection clause of the 1970 Constitution, and that therefore the 2012 legislation purporting to remove that benefit was unconstitutional because it constituted a violation of that clause.

Justice Theis dissented for herself and Justices Thomas and Garman, with a dissent equal to or even slightly longer in length than the majority opinion. The dissent contends that the 2007 legislation was special legislation, as the circuit court had ruled. “A statute that creates a classification benefiting only a person or group with certain characteristics on its effective date discriminates in favor of that person or group and against a person or group who may obtain those characteristics later. When that classification is based simply upon the fortuity of falling on the early side of a moment in time, it is arbitrary and not rationally related to a legitimate government interest.” In keeping with that description of its view of the rule to be applied, the dissent states that “there is no reason for restricting the advantages of the 2007 amendment to … employees who met the amendment’s … requirements before February 27, 2007, and not extending those same advantages to employees who met those requirements thereafter.”

In embarking on that analysis, the dissent stated that “the rational basis test is deferential…, but it is not toothless.” Further, “we can only decide that the means chosen by the legislature are rationally related to the end pursued by the legislature if we know the end.”

The dissent made a deep dive into the legislative history of the legislation, including email exchanges among staff, and which related in part an intent to forestall the signing of the 2007 legislation by the governor so that potentially affected employees would be able to qualify by the date of signing.

The dissent prefaced that factual examination by stating that “as Piccioli’s attorney admitted at oral argument, the optics created by the facts of this case are not great. The majority’s background, however, whitewashes those facts.”