Illinois Supreme Court finally ends charade by lawmakers to claim back pay

The ruling is saving taxpayers $180,000 in raises the two legislators were trying to claw back. But the former state senators had petitioned the court to include all current and former legislators, which could have cost state taxpayers $10 million or more.

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The State Capitol in Springfield.

The State Capitol in Springfield.

Taylor R. Avery/Sun-Times

“Chutzpah” has been defined as a man charged with killing his parents, then begging the judge for mercy because he’s an orphan.

Thankfully, last week, the Supreme Court of Illinois said “No!” to one of the most brazen cases of chutzpah this state has seen.

For five years, former state senators Mike Noland and James Clayborne Jr. have shamelessly tried to force you, the state taxpayers, to pay them back raises they voted not to take.

Not only did they vote to decline the raises, but they bragged about their noble self-sacrifice and ran for re-election on it!

“[Mike] Noland, who served in the Illinois Senate from January 2007 until January 2017, was a co-sponsor of the laws [to cancel legislator raises] and routinely voted for them,” Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville, Jr., wrote. “Declaring his support for the laws, Noland publicly stated that ‘most working families in Illinois are not seeing raises’ and ‘the least we can do is cut our own pay.’”

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Clayborne similarly pontificated, “As legislators, it’s wrong to ask our fellow Illinoisans to make responsible decisions, if we are unwilling to do the same.”

But once they left the General Assembly, they turned around and sued me — and by extension, you, the taxpayer — saying, even though they were lawyers and state senators, they apparently did not know what they were doing when they voted to decline the pay raises.

They had since come to believe they were violating the Illinois Constitution, which says, “Changes in the salary of a member shall not take effect during the term for which he has been elected.”

Those of us who live in the real world would see a salary hike in the middle of their term as a “change.” But, some courts have ruled mid-term “cost-of-living” raises are expected, and so are not a change, while a vote to reject a cost-of-living increase is a change.

Yes, that’s confusing.

But, on Thursday, the Supreme Court of Illinois said they did not even need to address the constitutional issue of the raises because Noland and Clayborne had been so brazen in their timing, enjoying their re-elections and only years later discovering they... misvoted.

“Here, plaintiffs, who are suing in their individual, and not in their official capacity, have slept on their rights, and we will not come to the aid of such complainants,” Neville wrote.

Justice Neville was joined by all of his Republican and Democratic colleagues in this unanimous, bi-partisan rejection of one of the most jaw-dropping displays of chutzpah this state has ever seen. And this is Illinois!

The immediate impact of the ruling is saving taxpayers $180,000 in raises Noland and Clayborne were trying to claw back. But the former state senators had petitioned the court to include all current and former legislators, which could have cost state taxpayers $10 million or more.

Last Thursday’s ruling puts a decisive end to not just this hypocritical crusade, but in all likelihood to a companion suit filed by former State Rep. Mike Fortner, which sought to expand the crusade to all legislators.

There are many good, conscientious legislators in Springfield who were not part of Noland, Clayborne, and Fortner’s shameful efforts, and were embarrassed by them.

I want to thank Attorney General Kwame Raoul and his stellar team for standing with me and for Illinois taxpayers in fighting this shameful case. The Supreme Court of Illinois’ unanimous support of our defense was not so much a victory for us, as it was a victory for you — the hardworking taxpayers of Illinois. 

Susana A. Mendoza is Illinois State Comptroller.

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