U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas told a meeting of lawyers last week that “unchecked judicial power” means “we leave it for the least accountable branch to decide what newly discovered rights should be appended to our Constitution.” To his point, the role of courts is to interpret constitutions not to make or enforce law. (I won’t repeat that umpire analogy).
Likewise among the states, their supreme courts are supposed to interpret and rule on the constitutionality of statutes not make law from the bench. But when things don’t go precisely like they’re supposed to, you notice.
Which brings me to what happened in Arizona last week. It was the state supreme court decision in the public employee pension case of Honorable Phillip Hall Et Al., v. Elected Officials Retirement Plan/State of Arizona.
Without diving into the weeds, Hall was about retirement benefits and contributions and whether they’re part of an ’employment contract.’ It was also about the Gift Clause in the Arizona Constitution. For an accessibly excellent commentary, see Arizona Republic Columnist Robert Robb’s aptly titled “Pension reform is now impossible in Arizona.”
Pension reform matters because according to a 2013 report by the independent financial research group, Morningstar, most states’ pension plans continue to be underfunded below the 80 percent level considered healthy. As summarized by Ballotpedia, “Decreased funding and increasing liabilities since the 2008 recession continued to put pressure on local and state budgets, in some cases leading to bankruptcy. Higher pension costs can have the following consequences:
- higher taxes
- less intergovernmental aid for services
- lower credit ratings
- higher interest rates on state borrowing”
I agree completely with Justice Clint Bolick’s dissent in the Hall case. It was well-reasoned and persuasively argued. Most of all, it was refreshingly candid. Reading the majority opinion, you have the sense they didn’t much care for the demurrer.
How bracing, though, to hear a dissenting voice on this state’s high court — so welcome, so invigorating, so rare. Four of the five sitting justices recused themselves because the case would have had a bearing on their own retirement plans. But because Justice Bolick joined the high court after the law was changed, he had no such conflict nor did the four guest justices also deliberating.
Grisham-like legal fiction.
Bolstered by a sharp wit, Justice Bolick’s keen analysis evoked nods and smiles from the first page. He likened the Court’s 51-year old finding that at-will state employees actually had a contract with the state to “a work of legal fiction to which the likes of John Grisham could only aspire.”
Equally remarkable, too, was that across its 21 pages, the majority failed to mention taxpayers — the poor slobs who’ll face higher taxes or cuts in services to pay promised pension benefits. To be fair, the majority did reference “the State” but in doing so, seemed to gloss over taxpayers who are ultimately the ones saddled with funding shortfalls in the State’s largesse. Indeed, Justice Bolick appeared to chide the majority’s rather cavalier observation that the retirement plan’s “actuarial soundness is within the Legislature’s control” — because it can always hike taxes and court fees — “apparently ad infinitum.”
“If ever there were a case in which we should seriously indulge the presumption of statutory constitutionality, this is it. The majority winks at that rule, then utterly fails to apply it. It repeatedly invokes the mantle of judicial restraint while casually invalidating a statute designed to preserve the financial stability of a public employee pension plan, a purpose so important that the voters made it part of our state’s organic law.“The majority opinion portends a huge financial windfall for the class members, a burden the taxpayers will shoulder. Under such circumstances, we should act with great restraint, lest the rule of law be undermined by a public perception that this decision is of the judges, by the judges, and for the judges. On this important issue, the majority exhibits no such restraint, and we therefore respectfully dissent.”
If there’s one thing you learn in law school is that courts sometimes back into their decisions. Adopting what’s called outcome-based jurisprudence, they first decide what the outcome of a case should be and then work backwards to find the reasoning that reaches the desired conclusion. A criticism of this approach was made in March when a split U.S. Supreme Court left mandatory union dues in place in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.
In my opinion, the Arizona Supreme Court found the outcome it wanted, which was to shift policy choice burdens away from active employee retirement plan members and place them instead on taxpayers “by freezing employee contribution rates in perpetuity” to quote Justice Bolick. Indeed, he referred to some of the majority’s rationale as “pick-and-choose jurisprudence.”
In Nevada, I remember its version of “pick-and-choose.” It was the 2003 Nevada Supreme Court case of Guinn v. Legislature, which came about when the Nevada Legislature deadlocked over the state budget. Nevada’s late Governor Kenny Guinn petitioned the Nevada Supreme Court for an Order declaring the Legislature in violation of the Nevada Constitution. More to the point, he wanted the Court to compel the legislature to fulfill its constitutional duty to approve a balanced budget; to ignore the 2/3rd super majority Nevada Constitutional requirement to raise taxes; and to appropriate funds for public education during that fiscal period.
But there was a fly in the apothecary’s ointment. Notwithstanding the Court’s decision, the Nevada Constitution at Art 4. Sec. 18(2) enacted in 1996 by voter initiative was not to be ignored. The voters and taxpayers enshrined in their state constitution the 2/3 super majority tax hike requirement to make raising taxes difficult. And that was the rub.
It’s clear the Court had the outcome in mind to fund education — a meritorious end to be sure. But to do so, it had to find justifiable means. So it parsed the super majority requirement to pirouette over the voter imposed 2/3 majority prerequisite. It said the requirement was “procedural” while the affirmative constitutional obligation to fund public education was “substantive.”
And so procedural rights were thrown under the bus when the Court decided the substantive right was more important even as Nevada’s Constitution Article 11, Sec. 6 only required that “the Legislature shall enact one or more appropriations to provide the money the Legislature deems to be sufficient, . . . .”
To its credit, Nevada’s high court reversed itself as part of a subsequent 2006 opinion.
But don’t expect a similar reconsideration in Arizona.
Credits: Clarence Thomas – caricature by DonkeyHotey at Flickr Creative Commons attribution license; Yippee, by Keith Williamson at Flickr Creative Commons attribution license; J.C. Hallman, by kellywritershouse at Flickr Creative Commons attribution license; A child’s primer of natural history, by CircaSassy at Flickr Creative Commons attribution license.