Rhonda Crawford
Rhonda Crawford

The Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission on Thursday requested the state Supreme Court suspend attorney Rhonda Crawford from the practice of law, effectively blocking her from being sworn in as a Cook County circuit judge should she win her election next month.

The 16-page request from ARDC Administrator Jerome Larkin comes less than four weeks before voters in Cook County will cast their ballots in the 1st Judicial Subcircuit, where Crawford is running against the write-in candidacy of Circuit Judge Maryam Ahmad.

At the same time, the ARDC has published its Oct. 7 complaint against Crawford, who allegedly sat behind the bench in a robe and adjudicated at least three cases in August at the Markham courthouse.

“[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,” Larkin wrote in the petition.

The petition — and Crawford’s constitutional eligibility to take the judicial oath — rests entirely with the Illinois Supreme Court. Crawford at this point does not have an opportunity to respond, said Peter L. Rotskoff, the ARDC’s chief of litigation.

Under Rule 774(a), the supreme court can respond to the ARDC administrator’s petition in one of two ways.

The justices can ask Crawford “to show cause” or state why, in writing, she should not be suspended while the ARDC complaint is pending. After Crawford responds, the court will make its decision.

Adrian M. Vuckovich, a partner at Collins, Bargione & Vuckovich who is representing Crawford, said he hopes the high court gives his client a chance to respond.

Or the justices can suspend Crawford on their own motion, and typically they would keep her suspended until the court issues another order, Rotskoff said.

Rotskoff said there is no specific timeframe for the court to issue its decision, even though the Nov. 8 election 25 days away. A spokesman with the Supreme Court declined to comment further, saying the “process and the normal procedure will be followed.”

By contrast, Crawford has 21 days from Thursday to respond to the ARDC complaint filed against her. In a three-count complaint, the ARDC has charged Crawford with: dishonesty as a result of handling cases on a judge’s call while dressed and seated like one; criminal conduct of official misconduct and false personation of a public officer; and giving false statements in a disciplinary investigation.

Crawford is being represented before the ARDC by George B. Collins of Collins, Bargione & Vuckovich. He did not return a request for comment.

A spokesman with the Supreme Court declined to comment further, saying the “process and the normal procedure will be followed.”

The ARDC petition specifically asks the state Supreme Court to “restrain and enjoin” Crawford from taking the judicial oath of office.

If Crawford is suspended from practicing as an attorney, she would be unable to become a judge, Larkin argued in the petition. He pointed to Section 11 of Article VI of the Illinois Constitution, which requires judges to be licensed attorneys.

Vuckovich acknowledged that argument but added: “The real issue will be whether or not Rhonda Crawford should be suspended without having a full hearing on what really occurred in Courtroom 098.”

Both the ARDC complaint and Larkin’s petition put forward the same set of allegations against Crawford.

On Aug. 11, Crawford was sitting in the witness box in courtroom 098 at the Markham courthouse, watching Circuit Judge Valarie Turner handle her court call.

At noon that day, Turner allegedly introduced Crawford as a judge to Luciano Panici Jr., an associate with the Law Offices of Dennis G. Gianopolus P.C. Crawford allegedly did not refute Turner, so Panici believed she was a judge.

Toward the end of the 1 p.m. court call, Turner allegedly said she was going to switch judges and gave Crawford her robes. Crawford put on her robes, the ARDC complaint and petition alleged, and heard at least three traffic cases.

During one traffic case, Panici representing the village of Dolton, made a motion to continue the case. Crawford allegedly turned to Turner and asked if she could deny his motion; Turner replied yes.

Vuckovich acknowledged that Crawford’s donning of Turner’s robes was a mistake. However, he maintained that what she did was not dishonest, and that was she under Turner’s supervision the whole time.

“She didn’t impersonate [a judge],” Vuckovich said. “She was learning at the direction of a lawfully appointed or elected judge, and the entire time she was sitting in the chair, the judge was next to her. It was clear who was the judge and who was the student.”

After the call ended, a Dolton police officer congratulated Crawford on her new judgeship and asked her where she would be assigned. Crawford allegedly said she would probably be assigned downtown.

Panici’s interaction with Crawford was still on his mind when he went to visit his father — Associate Judge Luciano Panici, who also works at the Markham courthouse — later that day.

According to the complaint, the younger Panici told his father about his experience with Crawford, who he thought he was a new judge. Panici Jr. said he “was surprised she did not know how to rule on a motion to continue.”

The elder Panici was confused by this statement, as there were no new judges in the courthouse. He told his son that Crawford was not a judge.

Panici Jr. reported the incident to Judge Marjorie C. Laws, presiding judge of the 6th Municipal District. When Laws asked Turner if she let Crawford wear her robe and hear cases, Turner allegedly responded, “I thought she was a judge.”

Vuckovich indicated that Panici, Jr. seemed to know who the judges in the Markham courthouse were, and that he knew Crawford was not a judge.

“If you look at the primary charge – count 1, that there was an act of dishonesty,” Vuckovich said. “That would mean that the person they’re accusing Ms. Crawford of pretending to be a judge when she’s not; it’s not dishonest when the person knows exactly who you are and knows what’s going on. She never called herself a judge to anybody.”

Crawford was also confronted that day by Laws. At one point, she allegedly said, “I did it. I did it.”

When Laws asked why she would do it, Crawford allegedly responded, “It’s the robe, isn’t it? He’s just mad because I denied his motion for continuance.”

That day, Laws informed Cook County Chief Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans of the incident; the chief judge would inform the public in an Aug. 17 press release.

On Aug. 12, Laws informed both the Cook County Circuit Clerk’s office and the sheriff’s office of the incident. Four days later, she reported Turner’s alleged conduct to the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board and Crawford’s alleged conduct to the chief judge’s human resources office.

Both Evans and Panici Jr. reported Crawford’s alleged conduct to the ARDC. Crawford was fired from the circuit court on Aug. 26.

Crawford gave a sworn statement to the ARDC on Sept. 22, the same day she held a press conference.

Larkin’s ARDC petition noted that Crawford “implied she had done nothing wrong because ‘the judge stood over [her] the entire time’ and she was ‘always under the direction of a judge.’”

Before the ARDC, Larkin described Crawford as not showing “genuine remorse.” Instead, she “fluctuated” from acknowledging mistakes to insisting she had done nothing wrong because Turner was present.

Crawford also maintained everyone in the court knew she was not actually a judge, even though evidence showed otherwise, Larkin wrote.

Crawford at her press conference said she intended to stay in the race and win election as judge.

Larkin in his petition slammed Crawford for bringing “further embarrassment to the legal profession” by holding the press conference and refusing to remove her name from the ballot.

Larkin is represented by ARDC attorneys Wendy J. Muchman and Shelley M. Bethune. Crawford is also represented by George B. Collins of Collins, Bargione & Vuckovich.

The ARDC case is In re Rhonda Crawford, No. 2016 PR 115.