Federal judge sides with teacher’s union, rules pension reform ‘unconstitutional’

By | 03.06.12 | 4:28 pm

(Pic by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/fabliaux/383476178/sizes/m/in/photostream/">bloomsberries</a>)

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford today ruled against the state of Florida in a lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association (FEA) challenging that state’s move to mandate employee contributions to state employee pensions.

The FEA’s lawsuit contended that the 3 percent contributions levied by the state on public workers impairs state employee contracts. They claimed the move “constitute[s] a taking of private property without full compensation” and violates public employees’ constitutional right to collective bargaining.

Today Fulford agreed with those challenging the state.

The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald reports:

Fulford said that she understands the “role of the judiciary is to interpret the law before it; not to make law” but to do that she would have had to ignore the law and added “this court cannot set aside its constitutional obligations because a budget crisis exists in the State of Florida.”

She ruled that the legislature’s action was “an unconstitutional impairment of plaintiff’s contract with the State of Florida, an unconstitutional taking of private property without full compensation, and an abridgement of the rights of public employees to collectively bargain over conditions of employment.

“To find otherwise would mean that a contract with our state government has no meaning, and that the citizens of our state can place no trust in the work of our Legislature. Those are the findings this Court refuses to make.”

Following the ruling, Gov. Rick Scott released a statement saying, “as you would expect, I believe this decision is simply wrong.”

“The trial judge has ignored thirty years of Supreme Court precedent in a decision that refuses to allow Florida to have common-sense pension reform,” he says. “This is another example of a court substituting its own policy preferences for those of the Legislature.  The Court’s decision nullifies the will of the people and leaves Florida as one of the only states in the country in which public employees contribute nothing towards their retirement, leaving working Floridians with100 percent of the tab.  The State plans to file a swift appeal to reverse this decision.  Nonetheless, the Court’s order should be stayed throughout the appellate process, which will avoid an immediate impact on the 2012-2013 budget.”

FEA President Andy Ford, however, said in a statement today that “the judge’s ruling confirms that the Florida Constitution requires the state to live up to its promises, including those made to the public workers by the state itself.”

According to the FEA, the largest teacher’s union in the state, state lawmakers levied the pension contribution requirements in order “to balance the budget on the backs of teachers, law-enforcement officers, firefighters, nurses and other public service workers so they could give corporations yet another round of tax giveaways.”

Ford said that he hopes state lawmakers will accept the decision and not continue fighting for the state’s plan.

“We are pleased by today’s decision. It once again will stop the Florida Legislature from overstepping its authority by ignoring the state’s constitution,” Ford said. “We urge the governor and leaders in the Legislature to embrace this decision and abide by the judge’s ruling. If they decide to prolong this case with an appeal, FEA is prepared to continue fighting for the rights of middle-class families who make our state a better place.”

The Florida chapter of the AFL-CIO, a union group that represents teachers and state workers across the state, also applauded the judge’s ruling today.

Mike Williams, the president of the Florida AFL-CIO, said the group is ”pleased to see that justice was served and that the Florida Retirement System will continue to remain one of the best public pension plans in the world.”

“Workers stood united and knew their time to plead their case would occur,” Williams said in his statement. “It is time for the Legislature to look towards closing special interest tax loopholes, corporate giveaways, and exclusive private contracts to balance the budget instead of using the retirement security of Florida’s public employee.”

The Florida Chamber of Commerce, which supported the state’s plans, said  the ruling is an “affront to the taxpayers and voters of Florida.”

Mark Wilson, the president and CEO of the Florida Chamber, said in a statement today that “instead of moving forward to secure Florida’s future, as expected, an activist judge’s ruling bypasses the will of the people and fully plants 100 percent of the financial burden of state government workers retirement plans on taxpayers.”

The state’s pension contribution requirement was one of the many issues state workers have had to fight in the past few years. Since last year, the GOP-led Legislature has attempted to mandate random drug testing of state employee, privatize government functions, such as prisons, and reform entitlements for state workers.

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