A divided Illinois Supreme Court has reversed a lower court's dismissal of a suit by a onetime teachers’ union lobbyist, who doubled his pension after substitute teaching one day, saying the law that let the lobbyist land the pension boost does not unfairly favor union employees who taught before the law took hold, compared to those who taught afterward.
Justice Anne Burke authored the April 4 decision, with concurrence from Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier and Justices P. Scott Neville Jr. and Thomas Kilbride.
Justice Mary Jane Theis penned a dissent, joined by Justices Rita Garman and Robert Thomas, contending the the majority justices were "whitewashing" the facts, upholding a law purposely designed to benefit only a handful of teachers' union employees at the expense of a taxpayer-supported public pension system designed to safeguard retirement benefits for actual teachers.
The majority ruling allowed 69-year-old David Piccioli to continue his 2015 action in Sangamon County Circuit Court, against the Board of Trustees of the Teachers’ Retirement System.
Piccioli worked as a Democratic staffer in the Illinois House of Representatives from 1987 to 1997. He then became a lobbyist for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, retiring in 2012.
On Feb. 27, 2007, an amendment to the Illinois Pension Code took effect, allowing teachers’ union employees, who were teachers as of the effective date of the law, to buy credit in the Teachers’ Retirement System for union work before they became teachers, and gain pensions.
In December 2006, Piccioli acquired a substitute teaching certificate and taught one day, Jan. 22, 2007, at a Springfield school. Piccioli then joined the pension system, paid in $192,668 over four years for his union work since 1997 and qualified for a pension, according to court papers.
In 2011, the Chicago Tribune published a story and a critical editorial about Piccioli obtaining a pension. Another teachers’ union lobbyist, Steven Preckwinkle, also taught one day and secured a pension, the newspaper reported. In response, the 2007 amendment was repealed in 2012, with Piccioli’s payments to be refunded.
Piccioli went to court in 2015 to have the repeal declared unconstitutional. The board of trustees countered the 2007 amendment was an example of “special legislation,” which is outlawed by the state constitution. The prohibition against special legislation prevents the legislature from “arbitrarily” making classifications that favor select groups, according to a 2005 Illinois Supreme Court opinion.
The Sangamon County judge agreed the amendment discriminates against employees, who started working for teachers’ unions after Feb. 27, 2007 and were not teachers on or before that date, compared to those who started teaching before that date.
On appeal, a majority of the state supreme court found the cutoff date, creating two categories of employee, was not arbitrary and so was constitutional.
“It certainly is not unusual for the legislature to make pension benefits contingent upon an individual’s eligibility as of the statute’s effective date. It is perfectly reasonable for the legislature to include a cutoff date in a statute establishing a public program or benefit,” Justice Burke concluded.
Burke continued, “We are aware of no constitutional rule that requires a government program to continue in perpetuity."
In dissent, Justice Theis said the majority justices “whitewashed” the facts, which show the sole aim of the 2007 amendment was to let certain union employees grab state pensions.
Theis said there was no reason to restrict the pension option to employees who became teachers before the deadline, noting the "arbitrariness is manifest in how the subject of possible Teachers' Retirement System eligibility was presented within the Illinois Federation of Teachers."
According to Theis, Preckwinkle told union employees, while the amendment was in the works, to make sure they met the requirements of the proposed amendment, so they could enjoy the amendment's benefits after it passed.
Preckwinkle even told them he would 'slow down the bill signing process,' so everyone 'who is in the pipeline for completing a substitute teaching assignment' could 'get coverage' in time, Theis pointed out, quoting emails Preckwinkle sent employees.
"Slamming a window shut before it ever opened smacks of special legislation," Theis observed.
Nonetheless, the majority position prevailed, with the case sent back to circuit court for further proceedings.
Piccioli has been represented by the Chicago-based firm of Hinshaw & Culbertson.
The board of trustees has been represented by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.