Illinois Courts Commission rules Adrian to be removed immediately as Eighth Circuit judge

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Eighth Circuit Court Judge Robert Adrian is shown presiding over the Tim Bliefnick murder trial in May 2023. | Pool photo by Matt Hopf/The Herald-Whig

QUINCY — The Illinois Courts Commission ruled Friday afternoon that the Judicial Inquiry Board proved “by clear and convincing evidence” that Eighth Circuit Judge Robert Adrian gave untruthful testimony before the Board constituting “willful misconduct” and has ordered him removed from office.

The 33-page decision was posted on the Illinois Courts Commission’s website.

Adrian found Drew Clinton, 18, guilty of felony criminal sexual assault following a three-day bench trial in October 2021. Then, on Jan. 3, 2022, Adrian vacated Clinton’s conviction, resulting in Clinton being released from the Adams County Jail.

A two-day hearing for Adrian took place in November before the Illinois Courts Commission in the Michael A. Bilandic Building in downtown Chicago.

The Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board filed a complaint on June 17, 2022, against Adrian. The board determines if a complaint made against an active Illinois court judge should be closed or investigated, and whether a reasonable basis exists to file a public complaint against a judge with the Courts Commission.

The complaint alleged: 

In its ruling, the commission referred to previous decisions to remove three other judges — Francis Golniewicz in 2004, Patrick O’Shea in 2019 and Ronald R. Duebbert in 2020 — as to why Adrian merited removal.

“In each of those cases, the respondent was deceptive, misleading and gave false testimony under oath,” the ruling said. “They disregarded the law and showed an inability or unwillingness to acknowledge their wrongdoings. In short, their conduct brought the judiciary into disrepute. This is the same type of conduct and pattern of behavior displayed by (Adrian) in this case.” 

The commission also referred to a 1994 case in which a judge was removed from office for his “flagrant pattern of intemperate behavior toward litigants and for repeatedly undermining the integrity of the judicial process.”

“In matters that go beyond mere judicial error, where a judge has demonstrated a consistent, brazen, and outrageous pattern of violating the code (of judicial conduct), judicial sanctions must be imposed,” the ruling said. “Based on the totality of the circumstances, the commission removed (the judge) from office (in 1994). The precedent establishes that a flagrant pattern of misconduct, falsehoods and a refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing justifies removal from the bench. We apply these same principles here.”

The ruling said Adrian engaged in multiple instances of misconduct, abused his position of power to indulge his own sense of justice while circumventing the law, lied under oath on multiple occasions and failed to acknowledge his misconduct.

“Much more was required of (Adrian),” the ruling said. 

The ruling borrowed a quote from the ruling in the 2019 ruling in which O’Shea was removed.

“A judge has a position of power and prestige in a democratic society espousing justice for all persons under law. The role of the judge in the administration of justice requires adherence to the highest standard of personal and official conduct. Of those to whom much is committed, much is demanded. A judge, therefore, has the responsibility of conforming to a higher standard of conduct than is expected of lawyers or other persons in society.” 

The commission’s report addressed each count.

In the first count, the commission said Adrian was not believable for multiple reasons.

“We start with the fact that (Adrian) not only engaged in, but initiated, at least three separate and improper ex parte communications; first with (Assistant State’s Attorney Todd) Eyler, then with (Clinton’s attorney Drew) Schnack, and finally, with (State’s Attorney Gary) Farha,” the report said. “We find respondent’s uncertainty about the dates these ex parte communications occurred was untruthful and calculated to hide the fact that he allowed a person he claimed was not guilty to remain in custody for several months.”

The commission also believed Adrian lied when he denied telling Eyler that something needed to be done about Assistant State’s Attorney Anita Rodriguez and the way she handled sexual assault cases, and when he denied that he initiated plea negotiations with Farha.

“In sum, we find much of (Adrian’s) testimony unbelievable,” the commission said about the first count.

In the second count, the commission noted that Adrian admitted his conduct on Jan. 12, 2022, was improper. 

“We agree,” the commission wrote. “(Adrian’s) conduct was unbecoming of a judicial officer, and it diminished the integrity of the judiciary. Judges are held to a heightened burden of ethical behavior, and justifiably so, given the important and powerful role they occupy in our society. (Adrian’s) conduct threatened the public’s confidence in the judiciary, not only for those who witnessed it in person but for those who may have read about it in the news.”

In the third count, the commission rejected Adrian’s claim that he reversed the guilty finding against Clinton based on the evidence and that the state had failed to prove its case.

“To the contrary, the (Judicial Inquiry Board’s) evidence shows that (Adrian) willfully refused to follow the law requiring that Clinton be sentenced to a mandatory prison term, not because (Adrian) actually thought Clinton was not guilty but because (Adrian) did not agree with the law,” the commission wrote. “We are convinced (Adrian) reversed his guilty finding to achieve that objective.”

Arguments during the November hearing in Chicago were made by Daniel Konicek, a Geneva attorney who served as Adrian’s counsel, and Cook County prosecutor Mike Deno, executive director and general counsel for the Judicial Inquiry Board.

Deno called Adrian’s explanation for why he reversed his guilty verdict in Clinton’s sexual assault trial “not believable,” refuting Adrian’s claim he changed his mind because Clinton wasn’t guilty and instead said Adrian tried to circumvent the law to avoid giving him a mandatory prison sentence.

“It’s not about the guilt,” Deno said during his closing argument. “The ‘rookie mistake’ he wants you to believe is not about the guilt. It’s the sentence.”

Konicek said in his closing argument that Adrian was consistent throughout his testimony to the Judicial Inquiry Board and to the Illinois Courts Commission. He said the fact Adrian didn’t have notes when he announced the reversal of his decision and he didn’t order a transcript of the Jan. 3 testimony doesn’t make him a liar.

Konicek said the testimony from three DNA experts helped make it easy for Adrian to conclude that Clinton did not without consent — or with the victim unable to consent — digitally penetrate the victim. He said the testimony from the victim, at first, was she clearly said Clinton’s penis was inside her. No mention was made of digital penetration. When the victim was called back as a witness later in the trial, Konicek said she said, “I thought it was his penis.”

Konicek also noted the DNA experts did not find “one shred of evidence” of seminal fluid.

The Illinois Courts Commission was created by the 1970 Illinois Constitution to adjudicate complaints brought by the Judicial Inquiry Board against Illinois judges alleging violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct. After a public hearing, the commission can reprimand, censure, suspend without pay or remove the judge from office.

Illinois Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville, a Culver-Stockton College graduate, is chairman of the commission. However, he filed an order in April recusing himself from the case. David K. Overstreet, the alternate Supreme Court member for the Illinois Courts Commission, also recused himself from the case in that April order. 

Elizabeth Rochford was appointed to represent the Supreme Court on the Courts Commission in the Adrian case. Other members of the Illinois Courts Commission are:

  • Margaret Stanton McBride, a First District Appellate Court judge from Cook County;
  • Thomas M. Harris, a Fourth District Appellate Court judge from Logan County; 
  • Lewis Nixon, a First District Circuit Court judge from Cook County; 
  • Sheldon Sobol, a Third District Circuit Court judge from Grundy County; 
  • Aurora Abella-Austriaco, a shareholder at Valentine Austriaco and Bueschel P.C., an all-female law firm in Chicago;
  • Paula Wolff, policy advisor to the Illinois Justice Project, a civic organization implementing policy initiatives and programs to improve the criminal legal system.

The Illinois Courts Commission has heard 29 cases since 2005. 

  • Ten judges were reprimanded, meaning they violated the Code of Judicial Conduct and engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, but the misconduct was minor. 
  • Six complaints were dismissed. 
  • Four judges were censured, meaning a judge willfully engaged in misconduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute, but suspension of the judge from the judge’s judicial duties or the removal of the judge from judicial office was not warranted.
  • Three judges were suspended, with the lengths of the suspensions ranging from four months to 60 days.
  • Four judges — Cynthia Brim in 2014, O’Shea in 2019, Duebbert in 2020 and now Adrian — were removed from office.
  • One judge was not disciplined.
  • One judge retired.

The day after Adrian threw Jones out of his courtroom, Judge Frank McCartney, chief judge of the Eighth Judicial Circuit, removed Adrian from criminal cases at the Adams County Courthouse and assigned him to the small claims dockets, the Law Magistrate docket and the probate docket.

McCartney then reassigned Adrian to the criminal cases on Jan. 1, 2023.

Adrian retained his seat as a circuit judge in the Eighth Judicial Circuit during the November 2022 election. He needed 60 percent of the vote to be retained, and Adrian received 28,915 “yes” votes and 18,045 “no” votes — about 62 percent. Adams County, the largest county in the circuit and Adrian’s home county, was the only one of the eight counties he lost, falling 12,302 to 11,829. He managed to surpass 60 percent in the other seven counties and hit the 80 percent mark in Menard and Mason counties. 

Adrian also presided over the May trial for Tim Bliefnick, finding him guilty of the February 2023 murder of his estranged wife, Rebecca, and sentencing him to life in prison. Jones prosecuted the case.

Adrian, a Republican, first earned election to his position in the Eighth Judicial Circuit after defeating Quincy attorney Chris Scholz with 55.7 percent of the vote in the November 2010 election. He replaced Mark Schuering, who retired. Adrian was retained in 2016.

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