February 7, 2023

Rhode Island Judge Has Stake in Pension Case Outcome

Rhode Island, the site of a sweeping pension overhaul last year, has brought in a prominent New York lawyer to litigate the question: David Boies, perhaps best known for representing Al Gore in the fight over the 2000 presidential election and for waging an antitrust battle against Microsoft on behalf of the government in the 1990s.

Rhode Island’s dispute may not reach quite those dramatic heights, but it is being closely watched as a first major test of whether, and how, financially strained states and cities can cut the benefits of their workers and retirees.

Several public employee unions have sued Gov. Lincoln Chafee and other Rhode Island officials, accusing them of acting illegally when they pushed through a package of money-saving pension cuts last year, including suspending annual cost-of-living increases for most retirees. The unions want the richer benefits restored.

Their five pension lawsuits were assigned to Judge Sarah Taft-Carter of the state Superior Court, who has handled public pension cases before and handed a big victory to the unions in one recent case. Mr. Boies, who at $50 an hour is working for a small fraction of his ordinary fee, is seeking a less conflicted judge, and could even ask to move the case into federal court.

The case has raised questions and strong feelings about the overhaul in Rhode Island, a state so small that it seems as if nearly everybody has friends or family in the pension system. Could the judge see beyond the harsh effects on her own family?

When the subject came up in a hearing in October, Judge Taft-Carter acknowledged that her son, a state trooper, was earning a pension, and her mother, the widow of a mayor, was already receiving one. (The uncle’s pension came to light only later.)

She said she had researched the matter, sought advice from a judicial ethics board and concluded that her relatives’ interests “will not reasonably impact my ability to be impartial.”

Her son joined the state patrol just three years ago, she said, so calculating his pension “requires a large degree of speculation and assumption.” Her mother’s pension was too small to be a factor, she said. (Court papers put it at about $22,000 a year.)

And while the overhaul means the judge’s pension will be smaller despite having to contribute more, she said that was true of all judges in the state: “If my financial interest should require disqualification, then all other state judges would be similarly required to recuse themselves.”

Mr. Boies is expected to appear in court on Friday and cite the state’s judicial code of conduct, which requires judges to recuse themselves when their spouses, parents or children have an economic stake in the litigation before them.

The state’s Supreme Court justices, who have been asked for a review, are also members of the state pension system.

In an interview, Mr. Boies said that challenging Judge Taft-Carter’s impartiality was just “the first step,” and the bigger issue was whether any judges in Rhode Island could handle the case, given their personal stakes. Companies routinely have their pension disputes decided by federal courts, which grant more leeway in changing pension plans.

“The plaintiffs brought this case the way they did to try to avoid federal jurisdiction,” Mr. Boies said.

Whatever the outcome of the hearing, Mr. Boies said he would continue to represent Rhode Island until all of the lawsuits and appeals were decided.

Mr. Boies, whose standard fee is $1,250 an hour, said $50 an hour was “the same fee that I charged the United States when I represented the Department of Justice in the Microsoft case.”

Mr. Boies became involved, he said, because he was convinced that Rhode Island’s pension troubles were just the tip of a $5 trillion iceberg of unsecured retirement promises to the nation’s millions of public workers. “This is something that can cripple state and municipal governments at a time when the federal government is, more and more, cutting back on the services it provides,” he said.

Public employee unions, in Rhode Island and elsewhere, argue that people like Mr. Boies are exaggerating the size of America’s total public pension shortfall.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 4, 2012

An earlier version of this article wrongly attributed the following quotation: Rhode Island’s effort is “the clearest example of fundamental pension reform that we have right now,” Ms. Monahan said. “Even though whatever Rhode Island decides doesn’t serve as actual precedent for other states, other states and cities still want to know if it can work.” The quote was from Amy Monahan, not Gina Raimondo.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/05/business/rhode-island-judge-has-stake-in-pension-case-outcome.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

In Florida, G.O.P. Help for Unions

But now it looks as if the bill could falter before the legislative session ends next week. Unions representing teachers, firefighters, the police and other public employees say they have persuaded nearly half of the Senate’s Republicans to oppose the bill by reminding them that in Florida, far more than in most states, organized labor has supported Republicans.

“We have traditionally been a Republican-based organization,” said James Preston, president of the Florida Fraternal Order of Police. “How much more conservative can you get than the police officers? Who wants to go against the cops and firefighters on these matters?”

Still, the unions’ success is surprising, especially since Republican lawmakers in traditionally labor-friendly states like Wisconsin and Ohio have passed far tougher antiunion legislation this year. In Florida, just one in 20 of workers in the state belongs to a union.

By some counts, 12 of the 28 Republican senators are against the latest version of Mr. Thrasher’s bill, which would require public employee unions to get each member’s permission each year before they could use that person’s dues for political purposes. Senate Democrats are unified in opposition to the bill. Republican and business leaders — noting that Florida’s state employees contribute nothing toward their pensions — have praised Mr. Thrasher’s bill because it would reduce unions’ leverage over health coverage and pensions.

“These are government unions that are negotiating oftentimes against the taxpayers,” said Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. “It’s not fair that the taxpayer-funded payroll system is collecting union dues that are used politically against the taxpayer.”

But Senator Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Republican representing Miami, said the bill was too punitive. “I don’t think it’s necessary legislation,” he said. “It doesn’t do anything to create jobs. It creates a lot of discord unnecessarily.”

He said the fact that unions in Florida were weak had forced them to be bipartisan. Using Wisconsin as an example, he said, “You just don’t have the animus between union and antiunion here that you have in some other places.”

Indeed, some of the bill’s Republican opponents have enjoyed labor’s campaign support and worked with unions on numerous issues.

Mr. Thrasher’s bill originally had two main provisions. In addition to requiring members’ permission for using dues money for politics, the legislation would have barred the state or any community from deducting union dues from workers’ paychecks and forwarding that money to unions.

Union lobbyists repeatedly said the bill would cripple the payroll deductions that fuel labor’s political efforts while continuing to allow similar deductions at 360 organizations and private companies, including insurers, that spend money on politics.

Unions also said they were being scapegoated for Florida’s budget problems. They argued that the recession and Wall Street, not union-negotiated pay and benefits, caused Florida’s $3.6 billion deficit.

Those arguments resonated with lawmakers.

Rene Garcia, a Republican senator who represents Hialeah, said he saw little need for the bill because Florida’s public employees were already not required to join the unions that represent them or to pay dues. “I don’t like this bill because it’s not fair when you single out one group,” he said.

Mr. Thrasher, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, saw that he did not have the votes for his original legislation even though the House had already passed a similar bill. So he dropped the provision eliminating the dues check-off.

Mr. Thrasher did not respond to interview requests. But Senator Don Gaetz, a Republican from Destin, said the bill was revised to make clear that it did not intend to cripple unions.

“There’s no intent to stop unions from using funds for other very legitimate purposes,” he said. “The issue is, should the taxpayers of Florida be collecting money from public employees to be used by a union for direct partisan purposes? And the answer to that is no.”

Unions continue to fight the watered-down bill. “It could make unions in Florida a toothless tiger in politics,” said Rich Templin, chief lobbyist for the state A.F.L.-C.I.O.

In a sign that the bill is in trouble, Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, personally lobbied four Republican senators on Wednesday to back it, according to Mr. Diaz de la Portilla.

Gary Rainey, president of the Florida Professional Firefighters, said there was not enough Senate support to pass the bill in an up-or-down vote. But he feared that Republican leaders would secure passage by attaching it to another bill.

“It’s been a continuous battle shoring up support,” he said. “It’s not over until the fat lady sings.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=2678f1bf17cfc869c616d1996dca9108