Elected county board members, who have been amassing public pensions, do not need for their counties to prove they are working at least 11 hours a week to continue amassing their pension benefits as required by a state law, the Illinois Supreme Court has ruled.
On June 4, the state Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a 2016 state law that required county governments throughout the state to certify their county board members worked at least 600-1,000 hours per year in their elected roles. Should a county not do so, the law allowed the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund – the quasi-public agency that handles a host of retirement pensions for local government retirees throughout the state – to cut those county board members off from continued participation in the pension plans.
In 2017, the government of Williamson County, situated around the city of Marion in far southern Illinois, failed to provide the IMRF with the required certification concerning the work hours of its county board members. That requirement had been triggered by the reelection of one of the county’s three county board members, Commissioner Robert Gentry.
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas L. Kilbride
Under guidance issued by the IMRF, county governments had 90 days following the election of a county board member to file the certification, assuring the IMRF that the county board members continued to meet eligibility requirements to participate in the pension plan.
When Williamson County failed to abide by the law, the IMRF cut off Gentry, as well as his fellow commissioners Ronald Ellis and James Marlo.
Eventually, the case landed in Williamson County court, where the county and the three county board commissioners argued the state law was unconstitutional. They said it violated the Illinois state constitution’s so-called pensions clause, which forbids governments from taking any action to diminish or impair workers’ pensions.
In recent years, that clause has been interpreted by the state Supreme Court to forbid even relatively modest attempts at reform of the state’s burgeoning and underfunded public pensions systems, which consume an ever-growing share of tax revenue in Illinois.
In response, the IMRF argued the law’s reform measures pass constitutional muster, because they don’t deny any benefits already earned to the county board members. Rather, it disallows the county board members from continuing to participate in the pension plan because they no longer meet the requirements, specifically, the rule requiring their county to certify they are still working at least 11 hours per week on county business.
The IMRF argued to rule the law unconstitutional would create “absurd results” in which “an individual need only qualify for participation once and then be entitled to future participation for an indefinite amount of time.”
A circuit judge disagreed, however.
And on appeal, so did a unanimous Illinois Supreme Court.
The opinion was authored by Justice Thomas L. Kilbride. All of the court’s other justices concurred.
The IMRF “is mistaken,” Justice Kilbride said. “We do not conclude that plaintiffs were entitled to unlimited future IMRF participation for an indefinite time period. Plaintiffs are, however, entitled to constitutional protection of the contractual relationship of their IMRF membership when they began employment.”
The Supreme Court repeatedly noted the IMRF “never alleged that plaintiffs (the three Williamson County commissioners) have at any point failed to satisfy the original requirements for IMRF participation in effect when plaintiffs first became IMRF members.”
The justices said ruling in favor of the IMRF and allowing the law to stand would allow “the original requirements for plaintiffs’ IMRF participation” to be “changed unilaterally by the legislature,” which the Supreme Court has previously ruled is unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court said it has “consistently held that the contractual relationship protected by (the pensions clause) is governed by the actual terms of the contract or pension plan in effect at the time the employee becomes a member of the retirement system.”
The 2016 reform measure addressing county board member pension eligibility “imposes a new requirement for continued IMRF participation that did not exist when plaintiffs began their public employment,” the Supreme Court said.
In this instance, the justices said the law would directly impair the county board members’ ability to amass greater pension benefits because the termination of their “continued IMRF participation … decreased their service credits and negatively impacted their annuity benefit calculation.”
“We emphasize that in this case there is no dispute that plaintiffs satisfied the original IMRF eligibility requirements in effect when they became IMRF members,” Justice Kilbride wrote. “The only reason their IMRF participation was terminated in February 2017 was the failure of the Williamson County Board of Commissioners to pass the service-hours resolution within the requisite 90 days,” as required by the 2016 law.
“This newly created requirement in the Pension Code did not exist when plaintiffs began their public employment and participation in IMRF. Thus, it cannot be constitutionally applied to plaintiffs.”