The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kilbride
Docket No. 94029-Agenda 12-March 2003.
In this case, we are asked to decide whether a retired judge whose pension benefits were forfeited as a result of a felony conviction is entitled to a full refund of his contributions to the Judges' Retirement System (System) with no deduction for benefits he received as an annuitant after his retirement. We answer that question in the affirmative.
David J. Shields began his judicial career in 1971 as a magistrate judge in the Twenty-First Judicial Circuit. In August of that year he elected to participate in the Judges' Retirement System. He made contributions in the form of salary deductions until his retirement in November 1990. He began receiving retirement benefits of approximately $5,100 per month beginning in December 1990. Less than a week later, he was indicted by a federal grand jury on seven felony counts, including conspiracy, extortion, and making false statements of material fact to the FBI. He was tried, convicted on all seven counts, and sentenced to 37 months in prison. The conviction was affirmed on appeal. See United States v. Shields, 999 F.2d 1090 (7th Cir. 1993).
Shields continued to receive his retirement benefits until the date of his conviction, March 2, 1992. The System then notified him that his benefits would be terminated effective on that date pursuant to section 18-163 of the Illinois Pension Code (Code) (40 ILCS 5/18-163 (West 1992)). He had contributed $113,222 to the System and had received $75,349 in benefits. Although section 18-163 of the Code provides that it "shall not operate to *** preclude the right to a refund," Shields did not immediately seek a refund of his contributions, as he intended to pursue an appeal and the possibility of a pardon.
In December 1999, however, upon notification by the System that he was entitled to a refund, he filed an application with the Board of Trustees of the Judges' Retirement System (Board) seeking a full refund of all of his contributions together with interest at 5% per annum from the date his benefits were terminated. Relying on the informal opinion of a Special Attorney General, the Board determined that Shields was entitled to a refund of $37,873. That sum represented the excess of Shields' contributions over the benefits already paid. Shields appealed that determination. The Board found that computation of the refund was governed by section 18-129 of the Pension Code (40 ILCS 5/18-129 (West 1992)). Subparagraphs (a) through (e) of that section deal with refunds due: (a) to a participant in the System who ceases to be a judge before benefits are payable; (b) to participants who die in office; (c) to annuitants who die without a spouse or other beneficiary; (d) to participants or annuitants whose marriages are terminated by death or dissolution; and (e) to the estate of the surviving spouse of an annuitant.
Subparagraphs (c), (d), and (e) of the section provide for a net refund only after paid benefits are subtracted from contributions. Conversely, paragraphs (a) and (b) contain no limiting language. In fact, no provision in section 18-129 of the Code relates to an annuitant whose rights to benefits are terminated by forfeiture resulting from a felony conviction. The only specific statutory reference to a refund is found in section 18-163 of the Code. Nevertheless, the Board reasoned that the statute should not be read to benefit an annuitant whose pension benefits are terminated by a felony conviction over an annuitant whose benefits are terminated by death.
Finding that section 18-129(c) should apply, the Board denied Shields' appeal and ordered a refund in the amount of $37,873. No interest was awarded since section 18-129(c) specifically provides that refunds should be computed "without interest."
Shields sought administrative review, and the circuit court of Cook County set aside the decision of the Board, finding that Shields was entitled to a full refund of all of his contributions totaling $113,222.
The appellate court reversed, with one judge dissenting. 329 Ill. App. 3d 27. We granted leave to appeal (177 Ill. 2d R. 315), and we now reverse the appellate court.
There are no contested issues of fact presented by the record. Resolution of this case depends on the interpretation of the statutory provisions governing a refund of contributions where retirement annuity benefits are terminated because of a judge's felony conviction. This is a question of law. Therefore, our review of the Board's decision is de novo. City of Belvidere v. Illinois State Labor Relations Board, 181 Ill. 2d 191, 205 (1998). As a general rule, courts will accord deference to the interpretation of a statute by the agency charged with its administration. An agency's interpretation is not binding, however, and ...