Jim Dey | St. Clair County judge's troubles fewer, but still serious

Jim Dey | St. Clair County judge's troubles fewer, but still serious

Ronald Duebbert, a would-be circuit judge in scandal-plagued St. Clair County, has been down so long it looks like up to him.

But Duebbert, the subject of several columns in this space, got some good news this week. Criminal charges against him were dismissed.

However, he still faces a date before Illinois' Judicial Inquiry Board.

If it sounds odd that a judge is in trouble, this is an odd case, one that began in November 2016, when the previously unthinkable happened.

A Republican candidate for judge — Duebbert — won a narrow victory in a contest against a veteran incumbent Democratic judge in St. Clair County, which is located right across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

Knowledgeable readers right now are thinking — what's he talking about? There are no contested races involving incumbent judges.

That's right. But thanks to some court-approved chicanery, there were contested races involving three incumbent Democratic judges there.

Thanks to a slew of judicial scandals, the reputation of the St. Clair County judicial system was even lower than usual. So the three incumbents — John Baricevic, Robert LeChien and Robert Haida — each submitted faux resignations from their circuit judgeships, then filed to run for the offices they had theoretically vacated.

That way, they figured, they would only need 50 percent plus one vote to win the election in contrast to the 60 percent required to be retained.

At any rate, Duebbert, a veteran lawyer, ran against Baricevic and barely came out on top.

LeChien also won, but by a narrow margin. He died soon after.

Haida ran unopposed.

To say that Duebbert isn't well liked by his colleagues is putting it mildly. Only one judge showed up at Duebbert's induction ceremony, and that was to swear him in. By tradition, all local judges attend these events.

Democratic judges take politics seriously in St. Clair County. They consider the judiciary there to be a wholly owned subsidiary of the local Democratic Party. Besides, Duebbert based part of his campaign on the judiciary's poor reputation.

So they didn't exactly cotton to Duebbert, who is not only a Republican but an out-of-the-closet gay man. Lord have mercy!

This being St. Clair County, Duebbert didn't have clean hands either, as would soon be revealed.

News outlets reported shortly after the election that Duebbert had allowed an ex-convict and friend, a young black man, to live at his residence for a period of time after being released from prison.

Sharing quarters with an ex-convict, obviously, is not a recommended lifestyle for a judicial candidate or judge.

But the situation got worse and worse.

A few weeks later, Duebbert's friend, Ronnie Fields, was charged with murder. Then authorities made allegations that when they went to speak with Duebbert about Fields' whereabouts, he lied to them about his contacts with Fields. No criminal charges ultimately were filed based on Duebbert's alleged dishonesty.

Not long after that, authorities came up with a criminal charge that Duebbert had solicited sex from a 26-year-old former client.

By this time, Duebbert was on administrative leave because he faced two felony and two misdemeanor charges in connection with the alleged solicitation.

Just a couple months ago, Duebbert's problems became even worse. The state Judicial Inquiry Board filed a complaint against him for allegedly lying to law officers and then for again lying to the board when it inquired about his role in the Fields' murder investigation.

Duebbert adamantly denied wrongdoing, asserting that embittered Democrats were trying to force him off the bench by smearing him.

This week, he got some support for that claim. The state appellate prosecutor's office dismissed the sex charges against Duebbert because the alleged victim was nervous about testifying. The prosecutor also told the judge presiding over the criminal case that the alleged victim's lawyer told her his client "may have been embellishing" the facts.

For his part, Duebbert's St. Louis lawyer, Scott Rosenblum, described the prosecution case as "garbage" and maintained the alleged misconduct "never occurred."

That's obviously good news. But Duebbert still faces trial and punishment by the Judicial Inquiry Board, which can impose penalties that range from a reprimand to forcing Duebbert off the bench.

He also is still assigned to administrative duties and not hearing cases.

Chief Circuit Judge Andrew Gleeson said that as a consequence of the pending disciplinary case, Duebbert's status will not change.

Meanwhile, Duebbert's former roommate faces trial later this month. A Belleville newspaper reports Duebbert's name is on a list of potential prosecution witnesses.

Jim Dey can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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