Two weeks ago, a veteran Cook County Circuit Court judge allegedly allowed a lawyer who is running for election to wear a robe and hear cases at the Markham courthouse. A total breach of judicial ethics and also a potential violation of the law.
Timothy Evans, the county’s chief judge, was prompted to remove the judge from the bench August 17 until further notice.
Judge Valarie Turner allegedly allowed lawyer Rhonda Crawford to take her place on the bench, Evens said in a statement. An employee in Evans’ office, Crawford presided over at least two cases on August 11. Both were traffic cases. One involved a ticket for driving without insurance and the other for driving on the median.
Turner, an alum of Northwestern University and the University of Chicago Law School, is a former federal prosecutor. She also worked as an associate at the Kirkland & Ellis law firm. Since 2002, she hears municipal cases in Markham.
Pat Milhizer, Evans’ spokesman, said it is unknown how Crawford ruled. But both cases will be heard again in front of a real judge.
Milhizer declined to say if the matter was referred to criminal authorities for investigation or to the state disciplinary agencies that handle misconduct allegation against judges and lawyers. Although legal experts said the agencies would likely take a strong interest in the matter.
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez spokeswoman said that prosecutors who learned of the incident from a Tribune report found it, “deeply concerning” and planned to review it. Officials at the Judicial Inquiry Board and the attorney Registration Disciplinary Commission declined to comment. The Judicial Inquiry Board oversees and disciplines judges in the state and Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission licenses and disciplines lawyers.
This incident comes at a difficult time for Evans, adding a layer of embarrassment to his current challenges. Two judges are seeking to overthrow Evans from chief of Cook County courts in internal court elections next month. He has been the chief since 2001. As former Chicago Alderman, Thomas Allen as well as Sandra Ramos, a former state prosecutor, are running against Evans lead one of the Cook County court systems with over 400 judges.
According to records, Rhonda Crawford has worked for Evans’ office as a law clerk/staff attorney since 2011. In March, she defeated two opponents in the Democratic party for the 1st Judicial Sub circuit. It includes parts of the south Side and some of the south suburbs. She is unopposed in the upcoming November general election.
Judicial ethics experts were shocked about the incident. They said it would be such an ethical lapse and possibly a violation of the law for the impersonation of a judge. They were surprised any judge would allow it and any lawyer would actually take the bench. It also raised a number of issues. From questions about the validity if any judgement Crawford might have made to the cost and inconvenience of rehearsing the cases she handled.
The judgement of any lawyers who took part in the cases knowing that Crawford is not a judge, as well as the conduct of any clerks, courtroom deputies or other county employees who regularly work with Turner in her courtroom.
Turner and Crawford might have violated several rules of professional conduct for judges and lawyers according to Steven Lubet. Lubet is a professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law who specializes in legal and judicial ethics.
“The alleged conduct presents multiple violations of the ethics rules for both judges and lawyers that prohibit any conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice,” Lubet said. “Any judge or lawyer should know that only judges can rule on cases, and it’s plainly wrong for a non-judge to sit on the bench in a robe and rule on cases.”
Clifford Scott-Rudnick, a professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago who specializes in legal ethics, said that the alleged incident was simply stunning.
“”I can’t see how someone else can just sit and be a judge,” said Scott-Rudnick. “Obviously, if you’re entitled to have a judge hear your case, it has to be a real judge.”
Both Turner and Crawford could not be reached for comment. Evans also suspended Crawford from her job pending an internal investigation. She made her decisions after meeting with an executive committee of the county’s 17 presiding judges.
“The public’s confidence in the judiciary is the cornerstone of our system of justice, and I have taken the steps necessary to preserve that confidence,” Evans said in the statement. “Because the investigation is pending, I believe it is inappropriate to comment further at this time.”
Lawyers were also left stunned by the alleged incident. Barry Spector, a longtime criminal defense lawyer, said that he had seen instances where judges in training would take the bench as a supervising judge would look over them to make sure the cases were handled correctly.
“But that’s after they’ve been sworn in,” he said. “This is unheard of.”
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