Regulators of Illinois’ legal profession have asked the Illinois Supreme Court to take immediate action to block Rhonda Crawford, an attorney and fired Cook County Circuit Court law clerk, who was terminated this summer over allegations that she impersonated a judge from the bench, from being sworn in as an actual judge, should she win election in November.

On Oct. 13, Jerome Larkin, administrator of the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, which oversees discipline of the tens of thousands of lawyers licensed to practice in the state, filed a request with the state’s high court to suspend Crawford’s law license, pending further disciplinary hearings, and issue an order preventing her from being sworn in as a Cook County judge.

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans
Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans

“(Crawford’s) lack of judgment in impersonating a judge, her subsequent dishonesty in failing to correct those who misunderstood her role, her lack of genuine remorse about the prejudice her actions have caused to the legal system … and her failure to voluntarily remove her name from the judicial ballot, reflect her fundamental lack of eligibility to maintain a license to practice law,” the ARDC wrote in its petition to the Supreme Court.

The complaint included additional details of what led to Crawford’s termination this summer, in addition to the disciplinary action already taken against Cook County Circuit Judge Valarie Turner, who has been accused of allegedly allowing Crawford to preside over cases when she was not a judge.

According to the petition and a formal disciplinary complaint filed against Crawford by Larkin with the ARDC on Oct. 7, but only made public after the petition was filed Oct. 13, Crawford had worked as a law clerk at the Cook County Circuit Court since 2011, beginning at the Daley Center in Chicago, but for most of the time as an assistant to Judge Marjorie Laws, who presides over the county courthouse in suburban Markham.

Crawford filed as a candidate in the race for a subcircuit judicial position this year, and won the Democratic nomination for the seat in March. In judicial candidate evaluations posted online before the primary election, Crawford had been among those candidates receiving grades of “not recommended” or “not qualified” from the Illinois State Bar Association.

As no Republican or independent candidate had filed to seek the judicial post, Crawford was slated to run unopposed, and be sworn in after the election.

However, in August, according to the ARDC complaint, Turner during a routine afternoon court call reviewing traffic tickets at the Markham courthouse, allegedly announced to the courtroom she was going to “switch judges,” and allowed Crawford to don her robes in sight of those in the courtroom, and allowed Crawford to preside over three cases.

At one point, Crawford allegedly turned to Turner and asked if she could deny a motion to continue a case, requested by the prosecutor for the village of Dolton, identified as Luciano Panici Jr.

Also that day, Turner allegedly introduced Crawford as a judge, and Crawford purportedly did not correct her.

Following the court call, Panici purportedly visited his father, Circuit Judge Luciano Panici, and inquired why the “new judge” in the courthouse had to ask permission to rule on his motion to continue the case.

After learning who the “new judge” was, Panici Sr. purportedly directed his son to report the matter. Panici Jr. then took the matter to Judge Laws, and Laws then separately confronted Turner and Crawford.

“Judge Laws asked Respondent (Crawford), ‘Why would you want to risk your career for something like this?’ and Respondent replied, ‘It's the robe isn't it? He's just mad because I denied his motion for continuance,’” the ARDC related in its petition. “Judge Laws told Respondent she would have to report the incident and Respondent replied, ‘Wow.’”

After reporting the matter to other authorities, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans and the Cook County Circuit Court’s Executive Committee, which includes Evans and the judges overseeing the court’s various divisions and districts, removed Turner from hearing cases and suspended Crawford. She was later fired.

Crawford had been paid an annual salary of $56,961 in her law clerk job. Turner earns $188,000, according to an online database maintained by The State Journal-Register.

However, the ARDC said its petition was based on more than Crawford’s alleged behavior and actions on Aug. 11. The petition noted Crawford has also repeatedly defended her actions, including at a press conference at which she purportedly asserted the presence of Turner in the courtroom to supervise her actions in the cases should make what she did permissible.

However, the ARDC noted her actions were a crime and unethical, and reflect on her integrity as a potential judge.

And the ARDC petition noted Crawford has refused to voluntarily withdraw her name from the November ballot.

In the wake of the announcement of the allegations against Crawford, Maryam Ahmad, who has served on the Cook County bench since the Illinois Supreme Court appointed her to fill a vacancy in 2015, has announced her write-in candidacy for the post for which Crawford was nominated.

Ahmad had earlier this year lost a primary election campaign for a different Cook County judge post.

An ARDC spokesman said, in such matters, the Supreme Court has historically issued a “rule to show cause,” and sets the date by which the accused party must reply to the petition for suspension. Crawford has 21 days to respond to the attorney disciplinary complaint filed with the ARDC, the spokesman said.

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