CHICAGO (AP) — A Chicago-area judicial candidate who was once on the fast track to a high-salary, high-status job as a judge now faces charges of impersonating a judge when she was a court staff attorney early this year, prosecutors announced Friday.
Rhonda Crawford, 45, is accused of donning a robe in Cook County traffic court on Aug. 11, months after she won the Democratic primary for a judgeship. She is charged with misdemeanor false impersonation and felony official misconduct, which carries a maximum five-year prison term.
The nurse-turned-lawyer was a shoo-in to win the Nov. 8 until news that she briefly played a judge drew ridicule and condemnation among those who practice law in Cook County, one of the nation’s largest judicial districts with its some 400 judges.
In announcing the charges, County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said judges are “at the heart of our criminal justice system.”
“(Crawford’s) conduct in this case was offensive to the integrity of our system and cannot be excused or ignored as a mere lapse in judgment,” Alvarez said in statement from her office.
Crawford, who became an attorney in 2003, handily beat two primary opponents with nearly half of 72,000 votes cast. A statement from her campaign on the charges calls her “a pawn” in a behind-the-scenes play by “Democratic Machine politics” to disenfranchise voters in her district, which encompasses parts of Chicago’s South Side.
A judge set a personal recognizance bond of $10,000 for Crawford during a brief initial hearing Friday.
Crawford told reporters last month she had been shadowing judges to observe how they work when Judge Valarie E. Turner asked in a spur-of-the-moment offer if she wanted to sit on the bench. Crawford did for about five minutes and didn’t think anyone believed she was a real judge.
“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 lifelong ambition of being on the bench,” she said. “It is a lesson I will never forget.”
Court filings and separate documents from the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission portray her as more calculating. They alleged she failed to correct Judge Turner when she introduced Crawford to a prosecutor before the hearing by saying, “Have you met Judge Crawford?”
The papers also suggest Crawford understood the implications of what she did within hours putting on the robes and hearing several traffic cases, especially after a different judge confronted her in a hallway and said, “Why would you want to risk your career for something like this?”
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 would be more than $180,000.
The oversight commission earlier this month asked the Illinois Supreme Court to suspend Crawford’s law license so she couldn’t be sworn in as a judge should she win on Election Day, saying she wasn’t fit to become a judge after pretending to be one.
During testimony to the oversight body on Sept. 22, Crawford was asked what she would do differently if she could go back to Aug. 11.
“Not do it,” she answered. “Not do any of it.” She added she understood the incident was an embarrassment for the Cook County court system.