An Illinois appeals panel has backed up a Cook County judge in declaring the law should be interpreted to allow a write-in candidate who is seeking to win a judicial seat against a former law clerk accused of impersonating a judge to receive votes cast for her on Election Day.

However, neither the appellate justices nor a Cook County judge have yet declared the write-in candidate the winner of the Nov. 8 election, saying the answer to that question should come from the Illinois Supreme Court.

Maryam Ahmad
Maryam Ahmad

 On Dec. 9, a three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court determined Judge Maryam Ahmad, over the objections of the Chicago Elections Board and troubled judicial candidate Rhonda Crawford, should be allowed to receive votes in the race for an elected position as a judge in Cook County’s First Judicial Subcircuit, despite having lost a primary election in March for the Democratic nomination to a different First Subcircuit judicial post.

“In the absence of specific language … prohibiting a candidate from running as a write-in candidate for a different subcircuit position than the one she lost in the primary election, we find that the law must be interpreted to permit Ahmad’s candidacy,” the justices wrote.

Justice Mathias W. Delort authored the court’s opinion on the matter. Justices Thomas E. Hoffman and Mary K. Rochford concurred in the decision.

The decision comes as the latest blow to the effort by Crawford to secure her own seat among Cook County’s judges.

In March, Crawford and Ahmad had separately campaigned in the county’s Democratic Party primaries to win judicial posts. Crawford had sought to fill the vacancy on the First Subcircuit left by Judge Vanessa Hopkins, who had retired in 2014. Ahmad had sought to win the race to replace Circuit Judge Cynthia Brim. Brim had been removed by the Illinois Courts Commission in 2014 after voters failed to remove her, even though she was arrested in 2012 for shoving a sheriff’s deputy outside the Daley Center and was found not guilty by reason of mental illness.

Crawford, who had worked as a law clerk in the county’s Markham courthouse, won her race; Ahmad, who had been appointed as a judge by the Illinois Supreme Court in 2014 after Brim was removed, lost to eventual winner Jesse Outlaw.

However, in August, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans fired Crawford after an investigation revealed she had allegedly impersonated a judge, presiding over cases at the urging and under the supervision of Cook County Judge Valarie E. Turner.

The Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board has recently recommended Turner be removed from the bench, saying she has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and is “mentally unable to perform her duties.”

This fall, the Illinois Supreme Court suspended Crawford’s law license, at the request of the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, and barred her from taking the bench, even after she won election, pending the outcome of the investigation into the allegations against her.

In the wake of the actions against Crawford, Ahmad announced she would seek election as a write-in candidate in the race, intending to secure votes in the event Crawford is unable to actually win election.

However, initially, the Chicago Elections Board declared Ahmad was ineligible to run as a write-in because she had already unsuccessfully sought election as a judge on the First Subcircuit.

Ahmad challenged that ruling, and a Cook County judge agreed with her, saying, because Ahmad is challenging Crawford for the Hopkins vacancy, her unsuccessful primary candidacy for the Brim candidacy should not be enough to prevent her from receiving votes as a write-in in the general election race for the Hopkins vacancy judgeship.

Crawford then intervened, and appealed the judge’s ruling allowing Ahmad’s candidacy.

The appellate court issued an order Nov. 7 – the day before the election - on an emergency basis, saying an opinion would soon follow.

On Dec. 15, the Illinois State Board of Elections certified the vote count, saying Crawford officially received 87,790 votes to Ahmad’s 884.

However, Ahmad has asked a Cook County judge to declare Crawford’s votes invalid, as she has argued Crawford became an ineligible candidate when the Supreme Court suspended her law license and prohibited her from taking the judicial oath. She also asked the appellate justices to weigh in on that question.

In Cook County court on Dec. 2, Judge Celia Gamrath rejected Ahmad’s petition to essentially invalidate Crawford’s received votes, saying the matter should be left to the Illinois Supreme Court at this time.

“The Illinois Supreme Court could have, but did not, require Crawford to withdraw her name from the ballot,” Gamrath wrote. “Nor did it strike her name from the ballot. Nor did it order the suppression of vote totals or make way to declare Ahmad the winner, despite the direct opportunity to do so.

“Instead, the court retained jurisdiction over the suspension of Crawford’s law license and acted promptly to protect the public and integrity of the judiciary by enjoining her from becoming a judge.”

The appellate justices also declined to tackle that question, also saying the question may ultimately rest with the state Supreme Court.

However, the justices said they agreed with Cook County Judge Alfred Paul in finding the law, as it is written, does not bar judicial candidates who lost in one primary race from then running as a write-in in a different judicial race in the same election cycle.

“Ahmad did not lose to Rhonda Crawford in the primary for the Hopkins vacancy, so allowing her to run as a write-in candidate against Crawford does not give Ahmad a ‘second bite’ at the same ‘Hopkins vacancy’ apple,” the justices wrote. “The Democratic primary voters did not reject her candidacy for the Hopkins vacancy, nor have any voters had the opportunity to consider her as a candidate for that vacancy.”

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