Judge asked to rule on whether state has a right to a jury trial in pension lawsuit

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NEWPORT, Rhode Island — Lawyers for the state asked a judge on Friday to let a jury decide the legal battle over the state's landmark 2011 pension overhaul.

Attorney John A. Tarantino said the state has a constitutional right to a jury trial. And, he said, juries are uniquely designed to determine cases with disputed issues of fact that involve monetary claims, such as this one.

"The plaintiffs are saying, 'You breached a contract, we want to be restored and made whole,'" Tarantino said. "Breach of contract, compensatory damages equals right to trial by jury."

Public-sector unions and retirees sued over the law that was designed to save Rhode Island $4 billion over the next 20 years by reining in pension costs. The law has been used as a model for other states.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Douglas L. Steele, countered that the case isn't about monetary damages: They want the court to use its discretion and injunctive powers to put the law back the way it was. He said it would be premature to send the case to a jury, because plaintiffs have been added and it's unclear what factual issues will be disputed.

The parties appeared Friday before Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter.

Carly Beauvais Iafrate, an attorney representing about 7,000 retirees, said: "We're asking you to reinstate our benefits as they existed on June 30, 2012. That means we are asking you to take the law and just put it back. That, to me, is equitable."

The only reason money is involved is because time has passed, and the state now owes retirees the cost of living increases that were not paid, she said.

Tarantino told the judge about breach of contract claims throughout history. While they didn't have pensions in the 1600s, he said, case after case was decided by juries. Rhode Island law today also favors juries, he added. He said Steele's arguments paid little attention to the state's constitutional rights.

Taft-Carter did not indicate when she'd rule.

Unions and retirees have argued that their pension benefits constituted an implied contract. Talks to salvage a proposed settlement and resolve drawn-out litigation failed.

Taft-Carter denied the state's motion to dismiss the lawsuit in April, paving the way for the original court challenge to move ahead.

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