Eye On Illinois: Ex-lawmakers attempting to sue over policies they passed

In the ongoing saga of Michael Noland, it’s hard to determine which character is the most frustrating.

Noland, an Elgin Democrat, represented the 22nd Senate District from 2007 to January 2017. Six months after leaving office, he filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court alleging he was deprived of income through midterm furlough days and legislation that eliminated lawmakers’ cost-of-living increases from 2009 and 2016.

Yet Noland was on the record in March 2012 supporting those votes. In a caucus statement, Noland said, “The truth is that we are not spending enough in almost every part of the state budget. We have the fifth largest economy in the nation, 20th or so in the world, yet we rank 50th in per capita spending – that’s last in the United States. We need structural tax reform to properly fund our most important priorities – like education, health care and the ongoing need for infrastructure. Until we do this, the least we can do is cut our own pay again. I know most working families in Illinois are not seeing raises this year, so we shouldn’t, either.”

Thankfully, then-Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama dismissed Noland’s complaint for lack of standing. He wasn’t a lawmaker when he sued. Enter former state Senate Majority Leader James Clayborne Jr., a Belleville Democrat, who joined Noland as a plaintiff in May 2018 to ensure standing.

Clayborne didn’t seek reelection in 2018, so in July 2019 Valderrama ruled he also lacked standing and granted summary judgment in favor of the Illinois Comptroller’s Office. But Valderrama said nothing about Claymore’s capacity to sue as an individual, then opened a can of legal worms.

By forgoing cost of living increases and forcing furloughs on themselves, Valderrama wrote, the lawmakers violated the state Constitution by changing their salaries during their terms in office. The state’s position is that Article IV, Section 11 prohibits only midterm raises, not salary reductions, but Valderrama said that if the folks who wrote that clause intended to allow that distinction, they’d have done so explicitly.

Valderrama’s now a federal judge. Last week, his replacement, Cook County Judge Allen Walker, ruled the ex-lawmakers are entitled to back pay – on top of their legislative pensions and Noland’s six-figure salary as a Kane County judge. Fortunately, Walker clarified that his opinion applies only to Noland and Clayborne, who sued as individuals, and not all their former legislative colleagues.

Comptroller Susana Mendoza will appeal, which could save the state $166,000 (less the mounting costs of defense) and allow a higher court to restore a shred of sanity. The lawmakers’ contemporaneous votes and statements in favor of the legislation they now challenge must be considered. How can they be allowed to sue themselves?

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.