If Judge Ed Petka had his druthers, he'd still be on the bench in a Will County courtroom.
But health problems forced the 68-year-old from Plainfield to give up the gavel in 2009 after less than three years as a jurist.
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However, he can take a modicum of comfort in his $182,445 annual pension, an amount partly based on his two decades as a suburban legislator and 10 storied years as Will County state's attorney, but significantly boosted by his brief stay on the bench.
Does Petka believe he deserves that amount?
"The answer is yes," he said without hesitation. "The rules were the rules when I came in, and a pension wasn't my consideration when I took the job. All things considered, though, I'd prefer to be on the bench."
Thanks to high salaries, generous judicial pension policies and a state law that allows public workers to move their retirement benefits from one job to another, many retired judges don't have to put in a lot of time on the bench to make a lot in retirement.
While Petka's $182,445 pension this year gives him the most of all the state's 715 retired judges, he is just one of 279 former jurists who were able to count their time at another government job toward their judicial pension.
Former judges Perry Gulbrandsen of Gurnee, Pamela Jensen of Elgin, Victoria Martin of Lake Villa, Karen Tobin of Palatine and Kenneth Torluemke of Addison are among 43 former judges who combine three public pensions to maximize their judicial benefits, according to state pension records. That allows them to collect higher benefits, become vested in the judicial pension program in less than the usual 20 years, or retire before age 60 without an early-retirement penalty.
"There's a reason why every political operative with a law degree wants to be appointed to a judgeship," said Collin Hitt, senior director of government affairs at the Illinois Policy Institute. "Should they be paid well? Yes. Should they be paid pensions that amount to millions in retirement? That's where we're at now. We have one of the highest paid judiciaries in the country."
Hitt said after California, Illinois pays its judges the most. Associate circuit court judges are paid $171,762 a year. Full circuit court judges make $180,802, according to officials at the state courts' administrative office. Similarly sized Ohio pays those types of judges $121,350, according to records found on the Ohio Supreme Court's website.
Highly paid judges lead to high pensions. Judges have one of the most lucrative pension programs in the state. In order to maximize their pension, judges receive 85 percent of their final salary after 20 years. The rule was changed so that judges who were appointed after 2009 now have their pension payout based on the average of their final four years, according to state statutes. Judicial pensions also have an automatic 3 percent cost-of-living increase that is compounded each year. Only pension programs for legislators, statewide officeholders and some elected county leaders -- like in DuPage and Will counties -- provide similar benefits.
By comparison, most public pension programs require workers to put in 30-plus years and are based on a formula that amounts to 75 percent of a worker's highest-paid years.
Judges have the Reciprocal Act to thank. This law allows public workers to move from one public job to another without jeopardizing their retirement benefits since pension program benefits are not uniform. Some judges with only a short time on the bench might have to spend a few thousand dollars to move some of their time in other public jobs to the judicial pension system.
The Reciprocal Act also allows former judges like Petka, who have less than the required minimum of six years on the bench, to receive a judicial pension because of their other service. There are 28 former judges currently receiving judicial pensions who had less than six years on the bench.
State Sen. Ron Sandack, a Downers Grove Republican, takes aim at the Reciprocal Act. Sandack doesn't participate in the pension program afforded legislators because he doesn't believe "a full-time benefit should accrue for a part-time job."
"Clearly, the legislature's got to look at the Reciprocal Act," he said. "It's being utilized in a way far more than intended. It's more gaming the system than outright fraud."
Former Cook County Associate Circuit Judge Gulbrandsen is a Vietnam War Marine veteran who worked for Cook County for 10 years, the state's workers' compensation commission for another decade and then retired in 2000 after being a judge for 11 years. All that service now amounts to $138,847 in pension payments this year, $88,025 of which comes from his judicial pension. Gulbrandsen, like many former judges, doesn't believe he's getting a better deal than any other public workers, saying judges pay more toward their pensions. Judges with spouses pay 11 percent of their salaries toward their pensions, but single judges pay 8.5 percent, according to state records. By comparison, teachers pay 9.4 percent, Cook County employees pay 8.5 percent, state university employees pay 8 percent and most municipal employees pay 4.5 percent.
"You have to look at the amount of training and skill that goes into being a judge," Gulbrandsen said. "There were days when I'd say, 'The county really got their money's worth today.' There's a certain sacrifice you make when you go on the bench."
Critics like Hitt worry there's no motivation to overhaul the state's public pension systems.
"The folks responsible for creating the system and the folks who are ultimately going to decide the legality of any fix to that system are the ones benefiting the most from that system right now," Hitt complained. "That's a problem."