As the once-proud city of Detroit humbles itself in bankruptcy court, its financial future may hinge on this key question: Is the city obliged to its past? Or can Detroit renege on its promises to thousands of retirees for the sake of its present city services?
The legal question at the heart of Detroit’s bankruptcy filing has never definitively been answered by the nation’s highest courts. But it could become increasingly important as cities from coast to coast are grappling with shortfalls in pension funds that left unchecked could force cutbacks to police, firefighters and other essential city services.
On Wednesday, the federal judge overseeing Detroit’s bankruptcy ruled that city employees could not go to state courts to keep their pensions out of the bankruptcy case. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes said he would hear the pensioners’ arguments in his court.
Some cities, like Detroit, are located in states where pension benefits are guaranteed in full according to state constitutions, statutes or court precedent. Yet Detroit’s emergency manager is asserting that those guarantees go away in federal bankruptcy court, leaving retirees in the same pool as numerous other creditors who may get mere cents for each dollar they are owed.
“There’s not a lot of previous case law that tells us what’s going to happen here,” said Paul Secunda, a Marquette University law professor who specializes in labor and benefits issues.
“It’s not just an issue of bankruptcy law and pension law, it’s also an issue of federalism,” Secunda said. “Can a federal bankruptcy court basically ignore a state constitutional provision and allow a city like Detroit to ignore its previous promises concerning public employee pensions?”