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Brown: Cook County judge allegedly let law clerk hear cases

Rhonda Crawford | Facebook photo

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In the category of You Can’t Make This Stuff Up:

A Cook County judge was reassigned to non-courtroom duties Wednesday for allegedly allowing a law clerk running for judge to act like the real thing in her courtroom — even making rulings in two cases while wearing a judicial robe.

Judge Valarie E. Turner, who had been working out of the Sixth Municipal District Courthouse in Markham, is accused of letting Rhonda Crawford, a Democratic candidate for judge in the November election, take her place on the bench.

Valarie Turner | Provided photo
Valarie Turner | Provided photo

Turner’s reassignment to administrative tasks — known informally at the Daley Center as “Judge Jail” — was announced by Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, who also said he was suspending Crawford from her $56,961 a year job with his office.

A spokesman for Evans said the Aug. 11 incident involved “two minor traffic tickets — one for driving with no insurance and another for driving on a median.” Evans did not reveal how Crawford ruled in those cases, but his spokesman indicated both cases will be heard again by another judge.

But that’s not expected to be the end of it.

Lawyers tell me the case goes beyond just a display of extraordinarily bad judgment and could be regarded as a serious breach of judicial ethics if the allegations are accurate.

Both the Judicial Inquiry Board and the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission are likely to launch investigations, if they haven’t already.

OPINION

Follow @MarkBrownCSTIn simplest terms, only somebody who has been sworn as a judge is allowed to act as a judge.

“This is more than misguided,” said Steven Lubet, a Northwestern University law professor and co-author of a textbook on judicial ethics. “You don’t put on the robes. You don’t rule on people’s fate unless you are a judge.”

Sources say Crawford was informally “job shadowing” Turner to learn how to perform a judge’s duties when Turner allowed her to take the bench and rule on some cases.

Evans’ office did not disclose whether Turner remained in the courtroom while Crawford took the bench.

Unfortunately, their “training session” was about four months premature.

Crawford, 45, won the Democratic nomination in March for a judgeship from the 1st judicial subcircuit, which includes portions of the South Side and south suburbs.

With no opponent in the November election, Crawford is certainly expected to win the office. But she and other new judges won’t be sworn in until December and have no authority until they are.

Crawford received 47 percent of the vote to beat out two other candidates in the primary despite being rated “not recommended” by all of the major bar groups after she declined to participate in their evaluation process. She defeated the Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate.

During the campaign, Crawford described herself as a staff attorney for the Cook County Circuit Court and assigned as a law clerk in the Markham courthouse. That makes Evans her boss.

Crawford, who lives in Calumet City, became a lawyer in 2003 after graduating from Chicago Kent College of Law. Prior to that, she was a registered nurse.

Turner, 59, of Homewood, is no novice. She was elected to the Cook County bench in 2002 and has twice won retention. Her current term expires in 2020.

She has good credentials, too. Prior to becoming a judge, Turner worked two years as an assistant U.S. attorney and six years at Kirkland & Ellis. She received her law degree from the University of Chicago.

In other words, she really should have known better.

When I reached her by phone Wednesday, all she would say was: “No comment. Have a good day.” I couldn’t reach Crawford.

The incident comes at a sensitive time for Evans, who is facing his first serious challenge for chief judge since 2010.

Former 38th Ward Ald. Tom Allen, now a chancery court judge, has declared his intentions to seek the post that Evans has held for 15 years. Evans is running for a sixth term.

In a prepared statement Wednesday, Evans said: “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.”

It will probably take a little more than that.

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