Why Courts Keep Defending Workers' Retirement Security

05/28/2015 03:57 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016

The economic inequality gap in America is widening, and more and more of our aging parents and neighbors are retiring into poverty. For most Americans, Social Security stands between them and living out their retirement in poverty. For public workers, many of whom do not receive Social Security benefits, their pension is what allows them to live in dignity in later years.

In recent months, courts in California, Oregon and Illinois have ruled on the side of workers when failed politicians tried to gut pensions. Like the courts, the public has sided with retirees in recent years. In recent years, voters in cities from Cincinnati to Phoenix have voted overwhelmingly defended the pensions of public workers.

The Illinois Supreme Court's decision earlier this month to strike down changes to the state's pension laws echoes what the courts and voters around the country have long held true: The state cannot deny hundreds of thousands of workers their hard-earned retirement security to alleviate budget woes created by politicians.

The decision by the state high court, which unanimously found unconstitutional new rules to stave off future cost-of-living adjustments and increase in retirement age for workers, is in line with recent judicial and public thinking on the issue. And it is also in line with a court ruling that is now being reviewed by the New Jersey Supreme Court.

When it comes to ill-conceived efforts to gut retirement benefits for teachers, nurses and firefighters, the courts and public opinion overwhelmingly side with workers. That was the case in Oregon, where the state Supreme Court ruled last month that state legislators could not retroactively lower cost-of-living adjustments on retirement benefits. It was also the case in Phoenix, where voters shot down a dark-money-backed proposition that would have ended the city's traditional pension system.

The Illinois Supreme Court is the latest to confirm that retirement security is an essential part of our social fabric, and one that merits constitutional protection. When people work hard and spend their entire professional lives paying into a system that guarantees them financial security in retirement, we can't pull back on that promise.

For years, public pension funds were depleted by politicians who chose to use workers' hard-earned retirement money to offset budget shortfalls. Now that there is increased public scrutiny, many states have proven that when politicians hold up their part, pension systems are healthily funded and offer the best return on workers' investment in retirement security.

Nevada's Public Employees' Retirement System, for example, took a hard hit after the Great Recession but is now one of the strongest and most efficient pension systems in the country. The program today is funded at 71 percent -- and will be 100-percent funded by 2050.

If we're going to talk about cuts in spending, we should be looking at the true offenders: corporate entities and the wealthy. While working families around the country have struggled to recover from the recession, corporations and Wall Street bankers have turned record profits and have rigged the system so that they receive unfair and costly tax breaks.

The decisions by the Illinois Supreme Court and others should serve as a warning to states that are considering making changes that unfairly cut retirement benefits for workers who have paid into their retirement security from Day 1 on the job. States will unnecessarily spend time and resources to defend proposals that will never be enacted. Lawmakers must choose between standing with Wall Street or standing with the courts and the public for the sake of retirement security.