A Chicago-area lawyer once on a fast track to a high-salary, high-status job as a judge spoke publicly for the first time Thursday since her firing as a court staff attorney for donning a robe and hearing real cases on the bench, saying the matter has been blown out of proportion.
Rhonda Crawford's brief role playing as a Cook County judge astonished the legal community, drew ridicule and triggered a criminal investigation that could lead to charges before the November election, when she's up for a judgeship that she was once a shoo-in to win.
The 45-year-old said she had been shadowing judges, observing how they work with the expectation she'd soon be a judge herself. It was on Aug. 11, she said, that Judge Valarie E. Turner "encouraged" her to put on the judge's robe and sit in her chair during a hearing on several traffic cases.
"I did not pronounce any judgments. ... I did not tell anyone that I was the judge," she said, reading a prepared statement at her lawyer's office. "I want to emphasize that the judge was always standing over me. She never left the bench."
While she downplayed what she'd done, she said she now regretted it.
"I allowed my respect for the judge and my enthusiasm to learn the procedures of being a judge to become a distraction to others and to my own life-long ambition of being on the bench," she said. "It is a lesson I will never forget."
Crawford, who was a staff attorney assigned to Chief Judge Timothy Evans at the time, was fired from her $57,000-a-year position; her annual salary as a judge, should she win in November, would be more than $180,000.
Turner, a former federal prosecutor, was removed from the bench indefinitely. Both she and Crawford could be subject to actions from disciplinary organizations.
Crawford's lawyer, Victor Henderson, said at Thursday's news conference that a grand jury is hearing the case and could indict Crawford before the Nov. 8 election. He declined to say what potential charges she could face. He said her actions were, at worst, "a minor infraction."
The Cook County state's attorney's office has said it is looking into whether a crime may have been committed. But an office spokeswoman declined comment regarding any grand jury.
One Chicago-based attorney, Alan Tuerkheimer, said one possible charge under Illinois law would be that of impersonating an elected official, which is a misdemeanor. But he said if Crawford's decision to sit on the bench was spur-of-the-moment during a sincere effort to educate herself, prosecutors might be reluctant to pursue charges.
Crawford was unopposed for a judgeship after winning the Democratic primary against someone endorsed by the party. But a judge this week overturned an election commission decision and said Cook County Judge Maryam Ahmad can wage a write-in campaign against Crawford.
Henderson cited that decision in alleging that Democratic powerbrokers are seeking to undermine Crawford.
"It's machine politics as usual," he said.