Daily Herald opinion: High court's rejection of lawmakers' pay raises is good news, but case comes with a cost
This editorial represents the consensus opinion of the Daily Herald Editorial Board
There is much to be happy for about the state Supreme Court's ruling last week that two Illinois lawmakers are not due nearly $180,000 in back pay for raises they had voted to reject but decided after they'd left office they should get back. But there is cause for some sadness, too.
The most despicable thing, of course, is that the state had to deal with the case at all. While in office, Democratic state senators Michael Noland, of Elgin, and James Claybourne, of Belleville, voted with the majority of the General Assembly to freeze cost-of-living raises for state legislators that a 1990 law made automatic. The freezes were in effect from 2009 to 2019. The pair even campaigned on their sacrifice.
But almost immediately after they left office — Noland in 2017 after serving 10 years and Claybourne in 2019 after 24 years — these two honorable former public servants decided that the freezes were a violation of the state Constitution's prohibition against changing lawmakers' pay during their terms and filed a case against Democratic Comptroller Susana Mendoza demanding they be awarded back pay for the money they'd given up.
Mendoza, as aghast as any reasonable Illinoisan at their brazen greed, refused, and the case went to court.
Unfortunately, Mendoza lost at first. The raise freezes were originally declared unconstitutional, and in July 2019, a Cook County judge ordered that Noland and Claybourne be paid.
Mendoza refused on several grounds, and Democratic Attorney General Kwame Raoul joined her to take the case to the Supreme Court. Raoul did not dispute the constitutionality of the issue, but rather contended that, by voting for the freezes, touting them and then waiting until after they'd left office, Noland and Claybourne took too long to file suit and thereby had given up any right to the money.
On Thursday, the state Supreme Court agreed.
“We conclude that under the facts here, where plaintiffs, former legislators, agreed to, acquiesced in, and voted for the Salary Reduction Laws, plaintiffs cannot now be allowed to challenge the reductions in their salaries during their previous terms in office,” Justice P. Scott Neville wrote for the court.
That's good news for Illinois taxpayers, of course, especially since the financial hit to the state could have been much worse. Noland and Claybourne, joined by another former state lawmaker, Republican Michael Fortner of West Chicago, wanted the back pay extended to everyone who served in the legislature during the period of the pay freezes — an action that Mendoza estimates could have cost the state more than $10 million.
But the true cost would have been more than financial, and already has been incurred merely by the filing of these unfortunate suits. It comes in the form of lost public trust suffered by hundreds of other Illinois lawmakers who accepted and honored their commitment. That is a deeply sad outcome of the litigation, and not something that can be returned by any court order.