CAPITOL RECAP: State Supreme Court makes history

CAPITOL RECAP: State Supreme Court makes history

By CAPITOL NEWS ILLINOIS

SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Supreme Court made history last week when two newly seated members gave the bench a 5-2 majority of woman judges.

Justices Elizabeth Rochford and Mary Kay O’Brien were sworn in Monday, Dec. 5. The two Democrats were both elected to the high court in November. Justice Joy V. Cunningham, who was appointed to replace retired Justice Anne M. Burke, was sworn in on Dec. 1.

The new justices join Lisa Holder White, who was sworn in as the court’s first Black woman justice on July 7. Cunningham became the second, bringing the number of Black justices on the Supreme Court to three, also a high-water mark for the institution.

The historic court will be led by Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis, who officially assumed that title in October, following Burke and becoming the fourth woman chief in the court’s history.

She’s been on the court since 2010 and ascended to the top spot by the court’s standard process, which gives the gavel to longest-tenured justice who hasn’t yet held it.

She’ll preside over a court on which four of its seven members have been seated for less than six months.

“In my life story, I am not a trailblazer. I am not Mary Ann McMorrow, who was the first woman on our court,” Theis said in an interview with Capitol News Illinois.

McMorrow was first elected to the court in 1992.

Diversity on the bench, Theis said, is both enriching to deliberations and important from a symbolism standpoint.

“It wasn’t that long ago when Charles Freeman was the first African American on this court. He joined the court in 1990,” Theis said. “But he was the only African American up until 2018 and then Scott Neville joined this court.”

Neville remained the only Black justice until he was joined this year by Holder White and Cunningham.

“Suddenly, we’re now going to have three people (on this court) that are people of color,” Theis said. “It says something about our state and something about our court that we’ve evolved to such a place that we can have that diversity.”

While Theis said she’s invigorated by the new court and the experiences and worldviews its new members will bring to the bench, she described the challenges of the court’s turnover as “innumerable.”

There’s also another considerable shift on the court – its 4-3 Democratic majority of recent years has grown to 5-2.

Theis, however, said partisanship has no place on the high court.

“There is no partisanship, unless you want to say sports partisanship,” she said.

* * *

PENSION FUNDING: Illinois’ unfunded pension liability grew by $9.8 billion, or 7.5 percent, in the fiscal year that ended June 30, due in large part to market losses in a volatile economy.

The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability reported Thursday that the total unfunded liability in the state’s five pension funds reached a total of $139.7 billion, leaving them with a funded ratio of just 44.1 percent.

Those numbers are based on an annual report from the state actuary, who reviews the preliminary financial data submitted by each of the five funds.

The funded ratio reflects the difference in the market value of the funds’ assets and the amount of money the funds would need to immediately pay all members the full amounts of benefits they are owed for the rest of time.

Although that’s an important measure of the systems’ long-term financial health, it does not reflect their current ability to pay out benefits that are owed. All five of the pension funds continue to pay out benefits to eligible retirees on a timely basis.

All told, the five pension funds had combined liabilities of $248.8 billion June 30 and total assets of $109.1 billion.

Pension systems generally receive funding from three sources – employee contributions; employer contributions; and returns on investments. The large unfunded liability in Illinois’ pension funds is the result of the state failing for decades to make adequate contributions as the employer.

In 1994, then-Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, pushed through legislation whereby the state would gradually increase its contributions over the next 50 years until the funding ratio would reach 90 percent by 2045, a plan commonly referred to as the “Edgar Ramp.”

But the state has not always met its targets under that plan.

Since taking office in 2019, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker has included full funding at the statutorily required levels in each of his budgets, and over the past two fiscal years authorized an additional $500 million above what was required by law, bringing the total amount paid in to just under $11 billion, including $9.9 billion from the General Revenue Fund.

According to those reports, COGFA said, preliminary estimates show the required contributions for the upcoming fiscal year will total $10.9 billion, including $9.8 billion from general revenues.

Even that, however, would be far short of what it would take to cover the actual costs that the funds will accrue during the year. The “actuarily determined contributions” for the five funds – the amount the state would be obligated to pay, even if the systems were 100-percent funded – would be $15.4 billion.

* * *

RELIGIOUS DISPLAYS: The Satanic Temple of Illinois debuted a new display in the Illinois Capitol rotunda Tuesday, taking its place next to the annual Christmas and Hanukkah displays.

For Christmas, that means the Springfield Nativity Committee has once again placed a manger scene featuring Mary, Joseph and Jesus.

For the Hanukkah display, the Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois placed a menorah, with one light bulb to be lit for each day of Hanukkah.

On Tuesday “Minister Adam” of the Satanic Temple of Illinois, who declined to share his last name for security purposes, was joined by about 15 Temple members to dedicate this year’s display. It consists of a crocheted snake sitting on a book and a pile of apples crocheted by Temple members.

The book on which the serpent is perched is Polish mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus’ “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres,” a 1543 work which posited the then-revolutionary idea that the Earth revolves around the sun.

Adam said the Satanic Temple has seven tenets, the first being compassion and empathy “toward all creatures in accordance with reason” and the second being that the struggle for justice “is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.”

Other tenets focus on bodily autonomy, respect for the freedoms of others, belief in science, human fallibility and redemption, and “nobility in action and thought.”

Rabbi Meir Moscowitz, regional director of the statewide Lubavitch Chabad organization, said the menorah has been on display at the Capitol for about 18 years, and the organization maintains other displays throughout the state.

The Nativity scene, meanwhile, has been on display for at least 14 years during Christmastime. Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the St. Thomas More Society and member of the Springfield Nativity Committee, said the faux-marble statues were purchased from Italy from a supplier to the Vatican. The manger is handmade.

While the Capitol Satanic display has received pushback from some religious groups in the past, Brejcha said “free speech applies to everybody.”

All displays are flanked by a sign stating the state may not legally censor the public space.

* * *

GUN BAN: Among the issues expected to be debated when lawmakers return to the Capitol in January is a proposed ban on the sale or possession of assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Those are the same types of weapons and ammunition systems that have been used in multiple mass shootings in the United States. But calls for banning them in Illinois intensified after a mass shooting at an Independence Day parade last summer in Highland Park that left seven people dead and dozens more injured.

On Thursday, Dec. 1, the final day of the veto session, Rep. Bob Morgan, D-Deerfield, filed HB 5855, the “Protect Illinois Communities Act,” which would make it illegal to manufacture, deliver, sell or purchase an assault weapon, assault weapon attachment, .50-caliber rifle or .50-caliber cartridge.

It would also make it illegal for anyone to possess such a weapon or ammunition 300 days after the effective date of the act, unless it is registered with the Illinois State Police.

The bill would also remove the ability of people under age 21 to own firearms and ammunition, with an exception for those serving in the U.S. military or National Guard.

And it would amend the state’s Firearms Restraining Order Act by allowing state’s attorneys and assistant state’s attorneys to act as a “friend of the court” in restraining order petitions while extending the maximum length of those restraining orders to one year instead of six months.

* * *

SAFE-T ACT AMENDMENT: Gov. JB Pritzker on Tuesday, Dec. 6, signed a follow-up measure to the SAFE-T Act criminal justice reform, the third such amendment since the law’s initial passage in January 2021.

The changes approved by lawmakers last week in the fall veto session center on the law’s provisions which will end the use of cash bail beginning in January.

The cash bail system, which in most cases allows offenders to post a dollar amount to be released from custody pretrial, will be replaced by one in which a judge weighs the individual’s risk to the community and potential for fleeing prosecution in determining whether pretrial release will be revoked.

Its opponents have argued that the list of circumstances in which pretrial detention is specifically allowed is too limiting for judges.

Advocates, however, say that a presumption of pretrial release included in the law for lesser, nonviolent offenses will allow the courts to give more thorough hearings to those whose freedom is on the line prior to conviction.

The measure contained in House Bill 1095 expanded the list of offenses in which a judge can deny pretrial release. The change made it so all forcible felonies can lead to pretrial detention regardless of whether the defendant would be eligible for probation if a judge deems them a danger to the community.

It also specified that the changes take effect for those charged after Dec. 31, 2022, but those on the old bail system can petition the court to be placed into the new cash-free system on staggered timelines depending on the severity of their charges.

The follow-up bill specifies that police maintain the authority to arrest trespassers.

While it maintains language instructing officers to issue a citation in lieu of custodial arrest for cases below Class A misdemeanors, it also specifies that police maintain discretion to make an arrest if the person is a threat to the community or they continue to break the law.

The measure clarifies judicial authority to revoke pretrial release if the defendant violates electronic monitoring conditions and specifically states penalties may be imposed for intentional tampering with monitoring devices.

The SAFE-T Act specifies that defendants have a right to a public defender from their first appearance in court, a change that is expected to increase justice system workloads. The measure creates a grant program to aid public defenders with increased caseloads, but allocation of funding for the program would be up to future General Assemblies.

* * *

TAX CREDITS: Last year, lawmakers passed the Reimagining Electric Vehicles in Illinois Act, or REV Illinois, that provided tax incentives for electric vehicle manufacturers, or companies that manufacture certain component parts for electric vehicles, to locate or expand in Illinois.

Under that program, companies receiving the breaks could receive a state income tax credit of 75-100 percent of payroll taxes withheld from each new employee and 25-50 percent for retained employees. The law also provided a 10 percent credit for training expenses.

The first and only contract under the REV Act thus far was signed between the state and T/CCI Manufacturing in Decatur in September to create an estimated $2.2 million in value for the company to retool its facility that manufactures compressors.

House Bill 5189, which cleared the General Assembly Thursday, Dec. 1, expands the incentives to be available to the makers of more component parts, and raises the maximum tax credit to 75 percent of the incremental income tax attributable to retained employees. That amount can also go to 100 percent, depending on where the jobs are located.

That language was part of an “omnibus” tax bill that also includes a five-year extension of tax deductions for contributions to ABLE accounts, a savings program for people with disabilities; an expansion of the Live Theater Production tax credit to make more productions eligible for the credit; and a provision stating that any student loan forgiveness that may be approved by the federal government will not count as taxable income for Illinois taxes.

* * *

INMATE HYGIENE: Lawmakers also passed a bill ensuring that inmates in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections will have free access to underwear and menstrual hygiene products.

House Bill 4218, by Rep. Barbara Hernandez, D-Aurora, follows other bills lawmakers have passed recently that seek to end what advocates have called “period poverty.” In 2021, lawmakers passed a series of bills to expand the availability of such products, including requirements that they be made available in college and university restrooms and homeless shelters.

Another bill called on the Department of Human Services to apply for a federal waiver so the products would be eligible for purchase through the SNAP and WIC food assistance programs in Illinois.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide, as well as hundreds of radio and TV stations. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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