SPRINGFIELD — While the major political skirmishes in the Capitol often are cast as a battle of wills between Gov. Pat Quinn and the General Assembly, the judicial branch has been playing a significant role in guiding state policy in recent years.
High-profile court orders on gun control, the closure of state prisons and the threat of legal action surrounding any action on pension reform have put the legal system in the middle of decisions usually left to the executive and legislative branches.
For sure, Quinn isn’t the first governor to juggle his gubernatorial agenda with judges, but he’s had to maneuver through a particularly thorny legal thicket in his three years in office:
- Attempts by Quinn to close state facilities, including the women’s prison in Dwight, and to withhold raises from unionized state workers have landed his administration in court on multiple occasions against the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees;
- A push to make retirees pay health insurance premiums triggered multiple lawsuits from employees who argued the move is unconstitutional.
- Regional school superintendents looked to the judicial branch for relief when Quinn cut their budgets and left them without paychecks in 2011.
There are more than a dozen other significant lawsuits that either have or could result in changes in state policy, including a federal case that could force lawmakers to legalize the carrying of concealed weapons.
Quinn’s office says much of the court action is simply the result of the governor facing tough budget times.
University of Chicago law professor Mark Heyrman is leading a lawsuit that contends Quinn isn’t following state law when it comes to reinvesting the dollars he is trying to save from closing the Tinley Park Mental Health Center.
Heyrman agreed much of the blame for the spate of legal action stems from the state’s precarious budget situation. “The fact is that we’re in fiscal straits,” he said.
But state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale, among several Republicans mulling a second bid for governor in 2014, said previous governors have managed to deal with financial problems without the courts playing such a high profile role.
“(Quinn) is not a good manager and he doesn’t have the legislative allies who will help him,” Dillard said. “The lawsuits are symbolic of the chaos in Springfield.”
But Abdon Pallasch, spokesman for the governor’s budget office, said lawsuits are a part of the process.
“In Greece, the government tries to cut back and people take to the streets and throw firebombs and burn down buildings. Here we go to court,” he said.
It’s against the backdrop of a financial meltdown that Quinn and lawmakers are attempting to solve the state’s pension debacle. The five pension systems — covering school teachers, prison guards, university employees and lawmakers — are more than $100 billion out of whack.
Part of one solution designed to close the gap involves proposals that would alter the benefits received by retirees — a move, says critics, that would violate the Illinois Constitution, which states pension benefits cannot be diminished.
Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, insists any overhaul of the pension system meets constitutional muster.
Last year, Cullerton called on his chief legal counsel to write an opinion on what kinds of pension changes would be deemed legal. The result: A 70-page treatise that lays out a path Cullerton thinks must be followed.
Even if that model is ultimately adopted, however, you can bet the sound of a judge’s gavel will soon follow.