Judge strikes down pension law, sparks charges of judicial activism, appeals

Mar 6, 2012

A Leon County Circuit judge has ruled the state’s mandatory pension contribution unconstitutional. Lynn Hatter reports state leaders and interest groups are pushing back by denouncing her as an “activist judge” and saying they will appeal the ruling.

Courtroom 3G in the Leon County Courthouse is packed with lobbyists, lawyers and reports, all waiting on one person…

In a written ruling, Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford says the state’s move requiring state employees to contribute to their pensions violates the collective bargaining rights guaranteed in Florida’s constitution. She also ordered the state to give the money back. Last year, lawmakers changed the law to require ALL state employees to contribute three-percent of their pay to retirement in order to fill budget holes. State leaders argued pension contributions would treat state employees more like their private sector counterparts. But groups representing the state’s teachers, firefighters and law enforcement officers, argued the move violates their collective bargaining rights. And Fulford sided with the state employees. Florida Education Association President Andy Ford called the ruling a victory.

“Life is a series of choices and the Florida legislature and the Governor have made their choices. They need to reevaluate where they are and they’ve decided over and over again to provide tax relief to big corporations, the people who contribute to their campaigns, and it needs to stop. They need to fund the services of the state of Florida.”  

But legislative leaders are vowing to appeal. Shortly after the ruling was announced, House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos released statements saying they were disappointed. In a press conference Monday, Haridopolos said the state used to have a mandatory contribution system until the early 1970’s. And, if the courts ruled against the state, it could blow a billion dollar hole in the state’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

“It would blow a billion dollar hole in last year’s budget which would cause chaos. It would blow a billion dollar hole in this year’s budget, which would cause further chaos. Should the judge rule against the law of the land in the state of Florida supported by the House and Senate and Governor, that we would immediately challenge that, because it would be the ultimate case of judicial activism, and sadly, it’s nothing new for this particular judge.”  

But the FEA’s Attorney Ron Meyer, says the state has the means to pay the money back.

 “I suspect the budget going forward has some reserves as well and the legislature ought to do the right thing and live up to the covenants that they, they legislature made with the public employees of this state.”

 Other leaders like Senate Budget Chief JD Alexander have argued that the judgment would have no budgetary effect. In her ruling Judge Fulford ordered the state to return the money to state employees hired before July 1 of last year, with interest. That part of the ruling can be put on hold as the state appeals the decision. The judgment does NOT apply to those hired after the law went into effect.   

After the announcement, several interest groups like Florida TaxWatch and the Florida Chamber of Commerce issued statements blasting the ruling. The Chamber  denounced what it said was “ an affront to the taxpayers and voters of Florida and repeated Haridopolos’ charge by calling Fulford an “Activist judge”, or one who legislates from the bench. But Fulford, who was appointed to the bench by former Governor Charlie Crist, seemed to know that criticism was coming…

In her ruling she says “At the outset, let me state clearly, the role of the Judiciary is to interpret the law before it. Not to make new law.” She goes on to say, “This court cannot set aside its constitutional obligations because a budget crisis exists in the State of Florida. To do so would be in direct contravention of this Court’s oath to follow the law.” The Supreme Court is expected to have the final say on the pension issue.