California justices question attorneys in key pension case

California Supreme Court justices have peppered an attorney representing state workers with tough questions in a closely watched lawsuit over a change to public employee pensions that has the potential to upend California's long-held rule that retirement benefits can never be taken away once promised.

The case stems from a 2012 pension reform law backed by Gov. Brown that sought to rein in costs and end practices viewed as abuses of the system.

One provision eliminated the ability of public workers to pay for more years of service in exchange for a more lucrative pension when they retire.

An attorney challenging that change, Gregg McLean Adam, told justices during a hearing in Los Angeles that the benefit was a promise to workers that they had come to rely on.

Associate Justice Goodwin Liu said Adam's logic could apply to a broad range of employment benefits. He said it's kind of hard to know where your rule leads in all manner of things — health care benefits, vacation accrual, transit subsidies.

The broader issue potentially at stake in the case is the "California Rule," which dates back to court rulings beginning in 1947. It says workers enter a contract with their employer on their first day of work, entitling them to retirement benefits that can never be diminished unless replaced with similar benefits.

Dawn Kamber