Breaking down judge's ruling against Florida's pension law

Published March 7 2012
Updated March 7 2012

What happened?

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford ruled Tuesday that the state's 2011 law requiring that members of the Florida Retirement System contribute 3 percent of their salaries to the pension fund unconstitutionally breached the contract with existing employees.

She ruled that the Legislature's action was "an unconstitutional impairment of plaintiff's contract with the State of Florida, an unconstitutional taking of private property without full compensation, and an abridgement of the rights of public employees to collectively bargain over conditions of employment." Fulford also found unconstitutional a piece of the law that lowered cost-of-living adjustments retirees received.

The ruling applies to government workers who were members of the Florida Retirement System before July 1, 2011.

Who was forced to contribute 3 percent of their salaries to pensions?

All public employees enrolled in the Florida Retirement System, which covers employees of the state, school districts, counties, public universities and community colleges, 182 cities and 231 special districts.

How many people is that?

560,000 working Floridians, from teachers to corrections officers.

Why did the Legislature require workers to direct part of their salary to the state retirement system?

Lawmakers have considered making government workers pay into the retirement system before, but the idea gained momentum in 2011 because it was a top priority of Gov. Rick Scott. Scott originally wanted workers to contribute 5 percent of their salary; lawmakers settled on 3 percent.

The law that was adopted made other changes to the state retirement system, including raising the retirement age for new workers. The lawsuit doesn't affect workers hired after July 1, 2011.

Wasn't it a campaign promise of Gov. Rick Scott to have state workers contribute to their pensions? What does he say about the ruling?

"I don't understand the ruling. It doesn't make any sense to me," Scott said Tuesday night. "We are appealing it and I'm sure it will be held constitutional, but think of the adverse impact it has on our state. . . . That plan is getting more unfunded every year."

Scott promised during the campaign to align employee contributions with other states, most of which require employees to direct a portion of their paycheck toward their retirement plan.

What's the immediate impact on the state budget lawmakers are completing this week for the 2012-13 year?

If the state appeals, as Scott has promised, there will be an automatic stay — which means the state will not be forced to return employee contributions or fill a corresponding budget hole.

House and Senate leaders say there will be no immediate impact on the budget they are scheduled to vote on Friday.

Who would hear the appeal?

The case would be appealed to the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. It likely would then be heard by the Florida Supreme Court.

If the ruling stands, will the state have to pay back workers what they've contributed since the law went into effect July 1, 2011?

Yes, the judge ordered payback with interest.

Who is this judge?

Fulford, a Republican, was appointed to the 2nd Judicial Circuit Court in 2009 by then-Gov. Charlie Crist. She previously served as chief assistant state attorney for the circuit, which covers Tallahassee and six Panhandle counties. Fulford graduated from Stetson College of Law. In 2011, she struck down a legislative proposal to privatize prisons and work camps in 18 South Florida counties.

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.