RI pension defense lawyer: Equity and fairness ‘doesn’t matter’

Remapping Debate, a nonprofit startup news site, is out with a lengthy and skeptical article about the chances that Rhode Island – and, implicitly, Treasurer Gina Raimondo – will manage to convince the state’s judges to uphold last year’s pension law.

“We’re at an inflection point,” Paul Secunda, an associate professor at Marquette University Law School, told the website’s Mike Alberti. “We’re poised between these two possibilities: will the court uphold the contract model and find that public pensions are entitled to legal protections, or will they move back toward the gratuity model, where the legislature can change benefits on a whim?”

However, the most interesting and potentially inflammatory comments in the article may be the ones made by John Tarantino, the lawyer who is Rhode Island’s lead counsel in defense of the pension law:

When asked whether he believed it was reasonable for the workers, when they were hired, to expect and rely on the benefits that were outlined to them, however, Tarantino said, “Absolutely.”

And doesn’t that promise make the law different from other legislation that can be changed at any time?

“Listen, I take promises very seriously,” Tarantino said. “I’m a man of my word. But just because I make a promise to you, that doesn’t mean that we have a contract.”

But wouldn’t breaking that promise violate basic notions of equity and fairness?

“That stuff doesn’t matter,” Tarantino responded. “All I’m going to try to prove is that it’s legal. What’s legal isn’t necessarily fair.”

More broadly, Alberti’s article suggests that a lot may depend on whether judges agree with the General Assembly’s suggestion that Rhode Island is in such dire economic condition that paying out the pension benefits as promised is beyond what the government can pay while remaining solvent.

• Related: Study: RI pension bill ‘a good approach’ – and it may be legal (Nov. 4, 2011)

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