Cop pension case requires action

Cop pension case requires action

When courts make the wrong decision for the right reasons, the Legislature should consider corrective action.

The name of Jon Burge, a former Chicago police detective who tortured suspects in order to extract confessions from them, is notorious beyond the big city.

But even though he's serving a federal prison sentence for lying under oath about his illegal acts, Burge continues to receive a pension — an estimated $4,400 a month — for the rest of his life.

By a narrow 4-3 margin, the Illinois Supreme Court last week put its imprimatur on Burge's benefits, ruling that a decision favorable to Burge by the city's police pension board is not subject to a legal challenge by Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

The four police officers on the eight-member pension board concluded that Burge is entitled to his pension even though there's no debate that he oversaw the torture of suspects during his years in charge of homicide investigations. The officers' rationale is that the crime for which Burge was convicted in 2010 — perjury for lying under oath in a civil lawsuit against the city — occurred well after he left the police force. Therefore, the theory goes, it was not directly related to Burge's conduct while a police officer and did not justify denying him a pension.

That is laughable. Burge perjured himself after his police career to cover up misconduct during his police career. Nonetheless, that's what the board decided — in a 4-4 vote insufficient to deny the pension.

The Supreme Court's 34-page decision — the majority decision and two separate dissents — debates the legal issues in excruciating detail. But the bottom line is that the majority concluded that the pension board's decision is not subject to review. Dissenting Chief Justice Rita Garman said the majority finding led to an "absurd" result. Both sides may well be correct.

The challenge now, however, is to prevent this outrage from happening again.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Madigan said her office is reviewing both legal and legislative responses to the court's decision.

The legal options may be few, but surely the Legislature can resolve the issue by rewriting the statute to clarify the misconduct issue and, if it's ignored, subject pension board decisions to a legal challenge.

The Burge case has been a 20-year horror story for the city of Chicago, one in which individuals in police custody were routinely abused and taxpayers forced to pay many thousands of dollars as compensation for the misconduct. To the extent that it can, the Burge matter needs to be put right — one small step being a legislative fix to the problem revealed by the court's decision.

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