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Lawyers representing state retirees want Supreme Court decision used to aid pensions case

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SPRINGFIELD, Illinois — Lawyers representing state retiree groups said Tuesday they aim to use a recent Supreme Court decision on health care benefits in an effort to expedite their case challenging Illinois' pension legislation.

Attorneys told Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge John Belz they'd be filing a motion asking him to factor the July 3 ruling, which could severely alter the state's argument defending the pension legislation.

The court's 6-to-1 ruling reversed a lower court decision that effectively allowed the state government to require retirees to pay for a portion of their own health care. The justices sent the case back to the lower court, where retirees can proceed with their challenge.

The ruling centered on the strength of the constitutional protection for state worker benefits, such as health care and pensions. It was quickly parsed for the signals it sent to the challenge to the state's sweeping pension overhaul aimed at fixing a nearly $100 billion unfunded pension liability.

Retired state employees, teachers and others filed five lawsuits against the pension legislation, which have since been consolidated.

The groups challenging the pension law say the same issue in the health care benefits case is central to their suit. They say the law violates the state constitution, which says public employee benefits cannot be "diminished or impaired."

Lawmakers and state officials have said that Illinois' fiscal crisis is bad enough to warrant the plan despite the constitutional clause. And they say that while benefits would be cut, employees also would see reduced contributions to the retirement plans and a guarantee that the state would make its payment.

Don Craven, an attorney representing the retirees, said the motion will be filed within the next 30 days.

With one side or the other bound to appeal a ruling, the case is expected to be decided by the state Supreme Court. Craven hopes the court ruling on health care benefits moves that process along more quickly.

"There is no defense to the impairment and diminishment of pension benefits," Craven said. "(We'd ask the circuit court to) declare the statute unconstitutional, put a ribbon on it, and send it down the street."

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