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Superior Court Judge Jeffrey B. Barton today laid out the script for the city of San Diego’s landmark pension case, which kicks-off with opening statements Monday morning.

Attorneys from the city, its pension system and employee groups spent the morning setting the parameters of a case that has the potential to dramatically reshape the city’s multibillion pension debt and the retirement plans of more than 10,000 municipal workers.

“What I’m trying to do today is make sure we try the right case,” Barton said.

The judge has broken the case into three phases, the first of which will be used to set the scope of what exactly will be challenged and how it will be challenged when a full jury is empanelled.

The first phase breaks into five questions:

  • Can City Attorney Mike Aguirre pursue his claim against the pension system that the pension benefits are void because their creation violated state law forbidding municipalities from incurring debt without a vote of the public?
  • Can the city reach back to 1996 to challenge employee benefits, or has a 2000 legal settlement essentially made only post-2000 benefits challengeable? If unions prevail, it could trim the stakes of Aguirre’s $500 million case down to only about $40 million.
  • Is everyone who would be impacted by this case represented in the courtroom?
  • Did a 2004 settlement between pensioners, the city and the retirement system make the city’s claims null and void?
  • Can the court actually grant the remedy the city seeks – that is, the nullification of pension benefits already bestowed upon workers.

The second stage would deal with whether the city’s suit is moot because of the statute of limitations, and the third stage would decide the merits of the case that emerges from the first two phases.

Opening arguments are set to start Monday at 10 a.m. Ann Smith, attorney for the Municipal Employees Union, said her statement would take about 45 minutes. Aguirre, known to be loquacious at times, couldn’t provide the judge with an estimate, only saying that his statement would be enough to make a strong, compelling – yet concise – case. When Barton said he hoped the statement wouldn’t exceed two hours, Aguirre agreed.

The city attorney said his first witness would be former City Manager Jack McGrory.

ANDREW DONOHUE

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