The “California Rule” and Its Impact on Public Pension Reform

Amy Monahan

State and local retirement plans are underfunded by trillions of dollars, at a time when many states are facing decreased revenues and increased social needs. As a result, many states are actively considering how best to address the problem of state and local pension plan underfunding given their limited resources. In many states, however, courts have held that the statutes establishing state retirement systems created contracts between the state and employees that prohibit the state from making any detrimental changes to the benefits provided to current employees within such systems, even on a prospective basis. This Article examines the development of such a rule in the California courts, a rule that has been widely influential in this area of law, as evidenced by the fact that courts in twelve other states have followed the California Supreme Court’s holdings. This Article demonstrates that by holding that benefits not yet earned are contractually protected, without explaining the basis for finding that such a contract exists, California courts have improperly infringed on legislative power and have fashioned a rule that is inconsistent with both contract and economic theory.