I have this oped in the Chicago Tribune, about a local judge who's gotten into a lot of trouble (and who has drawn national attention):
Judge Valarie Turner, of the Circuit Court of Cook County, is a very smart person who appears to have done a very dumb thing. While presiding over her call in a Markham courtroom, she allegedly turned her robe and gavel over to a lawyer, who then took the bench and adjudicated a couple of traffic tickets.
That was not quite as crazy as it sounds. The lawyer, whose name is Rhonda Crawford, won the recent Democratic primary in her judicial subcircuit, and she is running unopposed in November for a seat on the court. She was apparently "shadowing" Turner on the fateful day in order to learn more about the job of judging. It would not have been out of line for Crawford to try on Turner's robe, or even to sit on the bench for a bit. But ruling on cases, even if they were only minor traffic offenses, turned the situation into a fiasco.
The story of the faux judge eventually reached the office of Chief Judge Timothy Evans, who issued an order temporarily removing Turner from all judicial duties, pending further investigation. He also suspended Crawford from her current job as a staff attorney for the court.
Evans did the right thing by taking quick action on Turner and Crawford, but the real question is what will happen next.
Assuming that the allegations are true — neither Turner nor Crawford has issued a denial — the two of them violated a slew of ethics provisions that govern both lawyers and judges. They engaged in "conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice" that involved "dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation." The defendants on the two tickets were denied the "right to be heard according to law," and might now have to return to court to have their cases reheard by a real judge.
There are separate disciplinary bodies for lawyers and judges in Illinois. Lawyers are governed by the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission while judges are subject to the Judicial Inquiry Board. I believe it is safe to assume that both organizations already have initiated official investigations, and that some penalty is all but certain to follow. The potential range of sanctions runs from formal reprimands to disbarment of Crawford and removal of Turner from the judiciary. Which one should it be?
There is no defense for a judge who turned her bench over to a lawyer, and no excuse for a lawyer who pretended to be a judge, even if only briefly. Nonetheless, I do not think that these offenses should be career killers. Neither Turner nor Crawford acted for personal gain, manifested bias, demeaned litigants or witnesses or otherwise intended to hurt anyone. Although they do appear to have inconvenienced two traffic defendants, they did not commit a grave injustice.
Even thoughtful, hardworking people can make boneheaded mistakes on the spur of the moment, but that does not make them unqualified ever to do their jobs again. If disbarment and removal from the bench were imposed in this case, what would be left for the judicial miscreants — whom we have seen all too often in Illinois — who take bribes, abuse defendants, commit perjury or exploit and harass court staff? There needs to be some calibration in meting out lawyer and judicial discipline, and that means imposing penalties that fit the harmfulness of the offense, even if that does not correspond to the outrageousness or novelty factor.
Judge Turner has served honorably since 2002, without any previous hint of misconduct. Her reassignment from judicial duties — sometimes called commitment to "judge jail" — has already humiliated her. I believe a reprimand, or at most a short formal suspension, would be more than enough to get the point across and to make sure that nothing similar will ever happen again.
Attorney Crawford's position is trickier, as she will be subject to attorney discipline (currently) and judicial discipline (if she wins in November). Unlike Turner, she does not have an extended record of public service, so there is no good way to evaluate her long-term sensibility. Was the recent episode an aberration, or does it tell us something important about her judgment? Her ultimate discipline probably ought to correspond to Turner's — meaning at most a short suspension from the bar, during which time she could not serve as a judge, even if elected — but the voters can also have their say by getting behind someone for a write-in campaign.
What Turner and Crawford did was head-shakingly wrong; it cannot be ignored or excused. But this is not a case that demands an end to their legal careers.