CHICAGO — The head of an Illinois coalition that monitors judges says the news that a Cook County Circuit Court judge may have allowed a recently-fired law clerk to hear cases while wearing judge's robes should inspire voters to carefully consider who they’re electing to the bench.

In August, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans announced Cook County Judge Valarie E. Turner had been “reassigned to duties other than judicial duties” at the county's Markham courthouse, pending an investigation into whether she allowed a law clerk to hear cases as if she were a judge. The decision had been ordered by the Cook County Circuit Court’s Executive Committee, which includes Evans and the judges presiding over the circuit’s various divisions and municipal districts.

Rhonda Crawford, the clerk, wants to be a judge. She’s up for election to Cook County’s First Subcircuit in November. She’s running as a Democrat.

According to an Aug. 30 announcement from the chief judge's office, Crawford had been terminated from her position. The announcement does not indicate what impact, if any, the termination may have on her candidacy for the bench, nor what may happen should Crawford win election as a judge in November.

In the press release, Evans asserted he was barred by Illinois Supreme Court rules governing such matters from commenting further. 

The allegations are troubling, John Pastuovic, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, told the Cook County Record.

“I’ve never heard of it happening before. It sounds like a total breakdown of what should be happening in the courtroom,” Pastuovic said. “I don’t know how it could happen. Anybody who is a judge should know better.”

The ICJL is a group of taxpayers, consumers, small businesses, lawyers, doctors, local governments, big businesses, not-for-profit organizations and individual citizens assembled to bring awareness to what they consider abuses in the civil justice system. Since 2000, that has included drawing voter attention to judicial elections. Through its website, the ICJL tracks elections, pulling together resources on candidates, as well as evaluations and recommendations from groups that include bar associations.

“The judges we elect in Illinois — and we elect more judges than members of the executive and legislative branches of government combined — have longer terms and more power than all the other offices. They can nullify what the other branches have done,” the website states.

The website was designed to prepare voters for the polls, Pastuovic said. While he’s hopeful that the accusations aren’t symptomatic of any larger judicial ethics issues, he believes the incident reinforces the importance of selecting judges carefully. Crawford, who secured the Democratic nomination in Cook County’s First Subcircuit in the March 2016 primary, faces no Republican opponent in the November general election.

“I believe that behavior alone is enough to disqualify her,” Pastuovic said. “I’m hoping that the public is aware or becomes aware of her behavior and takes the proper steps on election day.”

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