By unanimously declaring the Republican pension bill unconstitutional, the Kentucky Supreme Court struck an important blow against “sewer” politics. The question now is how Republicans will respond when the General Assembly returns to Frankfort next month.
Will Gov. Matt Bevin and GOP lawmakers act openly and honestly, or will they just try new methods of skulduggery to pass legislation that cannot withstand public scrutiny? Considering that their first response was to attack the legitimacy of the state’s highest court, the prospects for good government don’t look promising.
The Supreme Court’s opinion, upholding a ruling in June by Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd, did not deal with the substance of the pension bill, only the unconstitutional way it became law.
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Early in last year’s session, the General Assembly’s Republican majority tried to pass a pension “reform” bill developed with no real input from Democrats, public employees, retirees or pension experts. The bill slashed benefits, which Republicans claimed was necessary to overcome billions in deficits caused by years of bipartisan underfunding and mismanagement.
When that bill couldn’t get enough support, even among Republicans, GOP leaders waited until the 57th day of the 60-day session and substituted a watered-down version of it for a bill about wastewater treatment. Then, over angry protests from Democrats and thousands of demonstrators who filled the Capitol, the bill was rammed through both chambers in six hours and signed into law by Bevin.
The 44-page Supreme Court opinion Thursday was narrowly and carefully written, citing extensive legal justification for finding that the “sewer” bill violated constitutional requirements for legislative transparency.
The justices said the state constitution’s rules about the process bills must go through to become law was intended “to ensure that every legislator had a fair opportunity to fully consider each piece of legislation that would be brought to a vote. That purpose cannot be achieved by reading a bill only by its title which has no rational relationship to the subject of the law being enacted.”
The court also rejected Republican arguments that declaring such legislative trickery unconstitutional would create “chaos” by exposing other laws to court challenges. “We are not persuaded from the record here that such a potential parade of horrors awaits,” the justices wrote.
Bevin, who earlier had called Shepherd a “hack” for ruling against him, claimed the Supreme Court’s decision was “an unprecedented power grab by activist judges.”
“This is very dangerous,” said Bevin, who has no legal training. “In the long-term, this will erode the rule of law that is the foundation of our government, but more immediately, this will destroy the financial condition of Kentucky.”
Not to be outdone by the governor, Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer tweeted a similarly outrageous comment questioning the court’s legitimacy: “This confirms what I’ve long thought: the KY Supreme Court is stacked with liberal activist judges who must be replaced.”
In reality, this Supreme Court spanking of Bevin, Thayer and other GOP legislative leaders was the American system of government functioning as it was intended. The judicial branch held the legislative and executive branches accountable, requiring them to follow the constitution and obey the law.
What is truly dangerous is these Republicans’ disrespect for the judiciary, the constitution, the rule of law and government transparency.
Bevin has always done his best to stir up fear and hysteria around the pension issue, predicting doom and gloom if he doesn’t get his way, claiming his way is the only way. But he has yet to prove his claims that the benefit cuts he has proposed will solve the crisis.
In fact, financial analyses by others has found that Republican “solutions” would only make the crisis worse, while at the same time endangering the secure retirements of tens of thousands of Kentucky teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public servants.
Kentucky doesn’t need more “sewer” bills or GOP power plays. And it certainly doesn’t need irresponsible politicians undermining citizens’ trust in the courts.
What Kentucky needs is rational discussion and debate about how to solve a crisis of under-funded public employee pensions, and then bipartisan solutions that involve all stakeholders and are based on facts and evidence rather of ideology and fear.