Cook County judge resigns, avoiding discipline for alleged sexual harassment

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Updated: Thurs., Oct. 1 at 5:08 p.m.

This story was co-published with the Chicago Sun-Times. Leer en español.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Mauricio Araujo resigned Thursday, according to the Judicial Inquiry Board. His resignation will take effect on Monday, Oct. 5.

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Araujo was facing the possibility of removal from the bench after the Illinois Courts Commission found Tuesday that there was “clear and convincing evidence” that he engaged in a pattern of inappropriate and harassing behavior toward women.

The commission of five judges and two members appointed by the governor was set to hand down a sanction next week.

The decision followed a two-day hearing before the commission, during which three women testified that Araujo had sexually harassed or demeaned them in several incidents between 2011 and 2018. Araujo admitted to making one inappropriate comment about a Cook County assistant state’s attorney, but disputed the accounts of a Chicago police officer who said he tried to kiss her and a court reporter who said he propositioned her for sex.

Araujo did not respond to a request for comment. He had been seeking six more years on the bench in the upcoming election. He failed to receive the support of the Cook County Democratic Party and was opposed by the Judicial Accountability PAC, a group of progressive lawyers.

Araujo has been on administrative duty since 2018, when the sexual harassment allegations were first filed with the Judicial Inquiry Board, which reviews allegations of misconduct against judges. The board filed a formal complaint with the Courts Commission in June 2019 and served as the prosecutor in the hearing.

Judge Mauricio Araujo

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Judge Mauricio Araujo

On Monday, Chicago Police Officer Karen Rittorno testified that she went to Araujo’s chambers on Aug. 15, 2016, to get a warrant signed. When she entered, he approached her and tried to kiss her on the lips, she said. She instinctively performed a move she learned in the police academy known as a “Back, sir” that creates some distance, she said.

“Aren’t you married?” she said she asked him in shock.

“He said, ‘Well, yeah,’” she testified. “I said, ‘Oh my god.'”

As they were leaving his chambers, Rittorno said, he reached back and grabbed her hand and said, “Touch it.”

“Touch what?” she asked.

“Touch my butt,” she said he replied.

She said she was in disbelief. Never in her nearly two decades as a female police officer surrounded by male colleagues had she ever been sexually harassed, she testified. She told members of her gang investigation team soon after, and it became a kind of running joke, she said.

“In my profession you have to suck it up,” she told the committee, her voice shaking. She vowed never to let herself be alone with Araujo again, even though she and her team continued to request his approval for warrants.

Araujo disputed Rittorno’s account of their interaction and denied asking her to touch him. He testified that because he considered Rittorno a friend, he once hugged and kissed her on the cheek as he does with many female friends, including other police officers. Araujo described his gestures of physical affection as part of his Colombian heritage.

But Rittorno said she had no personal relationship with Araujo.

“The judge’s testimony that he hugs and kisses male and female officers all the time is just not believable,” Judicial Inquiry Board attorney Kevin Fee said in his closing statement.

Rittorno said she came forward after watching coverage of the sexual assault trial of Bill Cosby and hearing that Araujo had made a sexual comment about a Cook County prosecutor.

Araujo complaint

A 12-page complaint the Judicial Inquiry Board filed against Judge Mauricio Araujo in 2019 alleges “a pattern of inappropriate and harassing behavior towards women.”

That comment came on Sept. 11, 2018, after Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Nina Ricci, a law school classmate of Araujo’s, appeared in his courtroom on a murder case, according to multiple people’s testimony.

Araujo said he was upset after Ricci didn’t acknowledge their past. Later, in his chambers, Araujo told Akash Vyas, another assistant state’s attorney, “something to the effect of, ‘Maybe it was because I didn’t have sex with her. Or maybe it was because I did have sex with her,’” Vyas testified.

Araujo testified that his comment was in response to Vyas suggesting that perhaps Ricci didn’t recognize him in his judicial robe.

State’s Attorney Kim Foxx reported the event to the criminal division’s presiding judge, LeRoy Martin Jr., and her office asked to move the case Ricci was handling to a different judge.

Rittorno said she wished she had come forward sooner.

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“I thought if I had said something when it happened, I probably would have stopped it from happening to the attorney,” Rittorno said.

Court reporter Carolina Schultz described a third set of incidents, from 2011, when she and Araujo were working at the Domestic Violence Courthouse. While the two of them were alone in an elevator, Araujo asked her, “How much?” with an implication that he was offering to pay her for sex, she said. Weeks later, he repeated the proposition, she testified, not bothering to correct her when she pointed out that he was married and she had a boyfriend.

Schultz said after Araujo’s comments she avoided taking the elevators alone and transferred to a different courthouse.

Araujo’s attorney Mary Robinson pointed out the lack of corroboration of Schultz and Rittorno’s allegations. She also suggested that Araujo’s comment about Ricci, while inappropriate, was a clumsy response to a misinterpretation of Vyas’s comment.

“We don’t ask you to reject the testimony of these accusers lightly,” Robinson told the commission in her closing statement.

In his own testimony, Araujo described his behavior as “overly casual” and said that, if the commission lets him remain a judge, he will behave in a more formal manner and refrain from hugs and kisses.

“Formality’s safest,” he said. “My intent is not to make anybody feel uncomfortable.”

If the Courts Commission had chosen to remove Araujo from the bench, it would have been just the tenth time in the commission’s 50-year history. The last judge to be dismissed was St. Clair County circuit judge Ronald R. Duebbert, who was removed in January after the commission found he had lied to police who were investigating his friend as a suspect in a murder, then lied to the Courts Commission about it.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the last judge to be removed from the bench and the number of judges who have been dismissed by the Illinois Courts Commission.

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