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Convicted of fraud months ago, Cook County judge finally targeted for ouster

Cook County Judge Jessica Arong O'Brien | Women's Bar Association of Illinois photo

Four months after a federal jury found her guilty of fraud, the state’s Judicial Inquiry Board declared that Cook County Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien’s presence on the bench is “prohibited by the Illinois Constitution.”

Still, even as that body moved Tuesday to have O’Brien suspended from her job without pay — citing the guilty verdict at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse — O’Brien’s lawyer questioned whether it has the power to do so.

“This concerns a matter long before she became a judge,” defense attorney Steve Greenberg said.

The Judicial Inquiry Board sent a formal complaint Tuesday against O’Brien to the Illinois Courts Commission, asking it to suspend O’Brien without pay “until further order” after a public hearing. O’Brien has three weeks to respond, according to the commission’s rules.

However, O’Brien’s criminal case revolved around conduct from well before she became a judge. Therefore, Greenberg said the commission might not be able to punish her for it.

Federal prosecutors accused O’Brien at her trial of pocketing $325,000 during a mortgage fraud scheme that took place more than a decade ago.

Despite the verdict and an ensuing decision by the Illinois Supreme Court to suspend her law license, O’Brien filed paperwork seeking retention in November.

She has now made $98,800 this year, according to a state comptroller database, even though state law says a conviction knocks her out of office. Circuit court judges make $198,075 annually.

The Illinois Constitution also requires a judge to be “a licensed attorney-at-law of this State.” O’Brien is “not authorized to practice law due to discipline,” according to an Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission database.

“This undermines public confidence in the judicial system, is prejudicial to the administration of justice and brings the judicial office into disrepute,” the Judicial Inquiry Board wrote in Tuesday’s complaint.

After her indictment in April 2017, O’Brien began to perform administrative duties. Typically that includes presiding over marriages. However, a spokesman for Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans has said she is no longer even doing that.

Greenberg argued that O’Brien “has not been convicted according to federal law.” The judge presiding over her criminal case has also not ruled on a pending motion for acquittal. And her sentencing is set for Oct. 9.

Greenberg said he hoped a board that helps decide discipline for judges “would give a judge the same opportunity that any other defendant would have to litigate the matter.”