Prosecutors probing allegations judge let clerk sit on bench

CHICAGO (AP) — An Illinois judge and a law clerk who was a few months away from becoming a judge herself are in legal hot water after the judge allegedly let the clerk put on a robe, take the bench and rule on a couple of minor cases.

Chicago's legal community was buzzing on Thursday, a day after Cook County's chief judge issued a brief press release announcing that Circuit Judge Valarie E. Turner had been taken off the bench indefinitely and law clerk Rhonda Crawford had been suspended from her job without pay.

"Nothing like this has ever happened before that I remember and everybody is talking about it," said Steven Hunter, a Chicago attorney who said he's represented people charged with impersonating police officers but never a judge.

Crawford allegedly presided over two traffic cases on August 11, according to the chief county judge's spokesman. Both cases will return to court before a real judge.

Neither Turner nor Crawford returned calls for comment about what happened, or why the judge might have allowed the clerk to take her gavel.

Turner is a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School. Her career has included a stint as a federal prosecutor, as well as private attorney and since her election in 2002, a county judge.

Crawford, an attorney, has worked as a law clerk with the Office of the Chief Judge since 2011. In March, she won the Democratic primary for a judgeship, putting her on her own path to the bench after November.

But the question now becomes what kind of trouble they might be in. Experts say the state's Judicial Inquiry Board will likely investigate Turner and the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission will likely do the same for Crawford. Such investigations can result in reprimands and even disbarment. And the county's state's attorney's office said Thursday that its attorneys would investigate to determine if a crime was committed.

That investigation will likely lead to the discovery of a statute in the state's criminal code that spells out that impersonating an elected official, called "false personation," is a misdemeanor.

At the least, experts say that what is alleged to have happened is a clear violation ethics rules for both attorneys and judges.

"It's just plain wrong for a non-judge to sit on the bench and rule on cases, which should be obvious to every judge and lawyer," said Steven Lubet, a professor at Northwestern University's law school who specializes in legal and judicial ethics.

Lubet did say that Crawford can still take the bench. But, he added, "once she takes the bench she can be disciplined as a judge."

Lubet said the allegations, if true, are not necessarily career killers. Nor, he said, should they have to be.

"Good, smart people can make enormous errors of judgment on the spur of the moment and that shouldn't necessarily their careers if people only do it once," he said.