Judging the Judges: Trouble in the courtroom

WGN Investigates
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It’s quiet after hours in the courtrooms at the Cook County Circuit Court, but you still feel the sense of dignity and the power of the man or woman who sits in judgment over everyday people. This job is so important to you and me that we vote on who can occupy this seat.

Yet, it’s Chief Judge Tim Evans who picks among the elected judges which will sit in traffic, civil or criminal court. Making that call is power in itself. Now there is turmoil behind closed courtroom doors over one of his choices.

One of Chief Judge Evans’ former law clerks, Rhonda Crawford, was allegedly allowed by a judge to put on a robe, sit in that judge’s chair and rule on a couple of traffic cases. Chief Evans fired the clerk, but here’s the twist she’s still on the ballot running for judge.

“It’s not a good situation. It just isn’t,” according to Dan Konicek, a trial attorney. “How does it reflect on our system? They are the ultimate arbitrators when it comes to, especially where she was sitting, to a lot of cases. People’s lives get decided by her or potentially if she becomes a judge. That alone I think creates a little problem for her.”

There is another problem, court watchers say.

The Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Board can take a range of actions, from a slap on the wrist to taking her law license. However, those investigations are kept secret until a decision is made.  This could be too late for voters in November because Crawford is running unopposed.

So what would Konicek say to the law clerk?

“You had a lapse in judgment. You should take a timeout go into the penalty box whatever you want to call it,” he says.   “Let the investigation, whatever it’s going to be, there is going to be one, let it be handled. And if you didn’t do anything wrong, and if there is a reason, which I’m sure there is, for what she did, let that be determined. And then come back and do it again. But at this point, I just don’t think it’s good for anybody that she be unopposed. She’s going to be elected. That’s not good.”

Once a judge, it’s up to the Judicial Inquiry Board to examine a judge’s behavior. Could it look at Crawford’s actions because she is a candidate? It is a criminal offense to impersonate a judge? Is Crawford in trouble? We won’t know because, again, this board also operates in complete secrecy, and slowly, until a decision is reached.

Like the old saying, the wheels of justice turn slowly but grind exceedingly fine. For example, in December 2013, a WGN Investigation raised questions about where another judge, Judge Beatriz Santiago, lived. In order to run for judge, you have to live in the neighborhood you say you do. But mortgage papers uncovered by our investigation had Santiago listing her residency outside her district which would have made her ineligible to run for judge.

It took three years, but now the Illinois Courts Commission has issued a rare censure for filing a false mortgage statement. She keeps her judgeship and has since bought a home in her district.

These recent embarrassments to the judiciary added fuel to a rare challenge against Chief Justice Tim Evans. A challenge on how he’s managing the massive Cook County Court system. On Friday, Evans won the day, keeping his job as chief.

Now he’s dealing with another problem.  The judge who let his former clerk improperly take her seat behind the bench has been reassigned.

We reached out to the law clerk and received no response.  The attorney for Judge Beatriz Santiago said she accepts the decision and is ready to go forward and work hard to be a good judge.  Chief Judge Tim Evans` office sent us links to news releases showing he took action dealing with each situation. There was no comment on his challenge as Chief Judge.

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