Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter this morning told the two sides in the legal challenge to last year's landmark overhaul of the pension system to try to settle their differences through mediation.
Court spokesman Craig Berke says the talks will be facilitated by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a branch of the federal government. Taft-Carter is due to be updated on the status of the discussions in early February.
"This [mediation] will go on in addition to the preparations for a trial," Berke said.
Berke says Taft-Carter ordered the two sides to talk "because the case is ripe for it," and the parties are "all very much in agreement" on the merits of seeking a settlement.
Governor Lincoln Chafee last year signed into law the pension overhaul passed by the General Assembly. The governor recently came out in support of seeking a negotiated settlement to the legal challenge by a series of public-sector unions, while state Treasurer Gina Raimondo -- the architect of the pension overhaul -- said the dispute should be settled in court.
Raimondo's office couldn't be immediately reached for comment.
Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, hailed the move by Taft-Carter:
"We're very pleased that the judge has ordered both sides into mediation. We have always felt that this would best be resolved by sitting down across the table from each other and negotiating out our differences, and we're guardedly optimistic that the process will work."
Walsh says Taft-Carter wants an update on February 1,
"So we expect to be very busy in January trying to resolve our issues, realizing that there will be a tentative trial date later in the year if we are not able to do so. We're prepared for both."
Supporters of litigating the case say a legal decision is needed to clarify whether the General Assembly can cut back pension benefits previously conferred by lawmakers. Walsh says a negotiated settlement is preferable, in part since it would resolve this round of the pension fight.