-From the unanimous decision of the Illinois Supreme Court striking down pension theft:
The General Assembly may not legislate on a subject withdrawn from its authority by the constitution, and it cannot rely on police powers to overcome this limitation. As we have already explained, there simply is no police power to disregard the express provisions of the constitution.
It could not be otherwise, for if police powers could be invoked to nullify express constitutional rights and protections whenever the legislature (or other branches of government) felt that economic or other exigencies warranted, it is not merely pension benefits of public employees that would be in jeopardy.
No rights or property would be safe from the State. Today it is nullification of the right to retirement benefits.
Tomorrow it could be renunciation of the duty to repay State obligations.
Eventually, investment capital could be seized.
Under the State’s reasoning, the only limit on the police power would be the scope of the emergency. The legislature could do whatever it felt it needed to do under the circumstances. And more than that, through its funding decisions, it could create the very emergency conditions used to justify its suspension of the rights conferred and protected by the constitution. If financial markets were rational, this prospect would not buoy our economy, it would ruin it.
Adherence to constitutional requirements often requires significant sacrifice, but our survival as a society depends on it. The United States Supreme Court made the point powerfully nearly a century and a half ago when it struck down as unconstitutional President Lincoln’s use of executive authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War, a period of emergency that, by any measure, eclipsed the one facing our General Assembly today.
In rejecting the government’s argument that wartime concerns justified the curtailment of the constitutional protections, the Supreme Court employed language which seems appropriate to this case:
“Time has proven the discernment of our ancestors; for even these provisions, expressed in such plain English words, that it would seem the ingenuity of man could not evade them, are now, after the lapse of more than seventy years, sought to be avoided. Those great and good men foresaw that troublous times would arise, when rulers and people would become restive under restraint, and seek by sharp and decisive measures to accomplish ends deemed just and proper; and that the principles of constitutional liberty would be in peril, unless established by irrepealable law. The history of the world had taught them that what was done in the past might be attempted in the future. The Constitution *** is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and in peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times, and under all circumstances. No doctrine, involving more pernicious consequences, was ever invented by the wit of man than that any of its provisions can be suspended during – 26 – any of the great exigencies of government. Such a doctrine leads directly to anarchy or despotism ***.” (Emphasis in original.)
The financial challenges facing state and local governments in Illinois are well known and significant. In ruling as we have today, we do not mean to minimize the gravity of the State’s problems or the magnitude of the difficulty facing our elected representatives. It is our obligation, however, just as it is theirs, to ensure that the law is followed. That is true at all times.
It is especially important in times of crisis when, as this case demonstrates, even clear principles and long-standing precedent are threatened.
Crisis is not an excuse to abandon the rule of law.
It is a summons to defend it.
How we respond is the measure of our commitment to the principles of justice we are sworn to uphold.