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Found guilty of fraud, judge now faces bid to knock her off November ballot

Cook County Judge Jessica Arong O'Brien, leaves the Dirksen Federal Courthouse last year. | Santiago Covarrubias/For the Sun-Times

Cook County Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien is already fighting an effort to suspend her from the bench and bracing for her sentencing hearing in federal court this fall.

Now, she also finds herself targeted by an effort to knock her off this November’s ballot. And this time, the challenge comes from a retired former colleague.

A federal jury found O’Brien guilty of fraud Feb. 15. She remains on the bench six months later and, though she is no longer performing any judicial duties, she has been paid $132,000 so far this year, according to a state comptroller database.

O’Brien also filed paperwork last spring seeking retention in November. The state board of elections is set to certify the ballot, including her name, on Friday. O’Brien argues that no conviction has been entered against her because she has not been sentenced. She still hopes for an acquittal from U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin.

But retired Cook County Judge George Scully asked the Illinois Supreme Court last month to remove O’Brien from the ballot, records show. His attorney is Michael Kasper, a high-powered lawyer who has also represented House Speaker Michael Madigan and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Scully argues O’Brien shouldn’t be on the ballot because the high court suspended O’Brien’s law license in April. The state constitution 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 the Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission.

“It is hard to imagine anything more detrimental to the public’s confidence in the fairness and integrity of the State’s elected judges than a system that allows a judge who has lost her license to practice law to stand for re-election to that position and telling the public that there is nothing that can be done to prevent it,” Kasper wrote in a brief filed with the supreme court.

O’Brien’s attorney, Steve Greenberg, accused Scully –– in a brief he sent to the supreme court –– of trying to “hijack” other proceedings and “remove Ms. O’Brien from the bench without due process.”

“Scully’s ultimate goal is to remove Ms. O’Brien from the retention ballot,” Greenberg wrote. “If he is successful, she will cease to be a judge, regardless of the ultimate result in her federal criminal case.”

Neither Scully nor Kasper responded to messages seeking comment. Matt Dietrich, a spokesman for the state board of elections, said the ballot certification may be amended to remove O’Brien’s name, if necessary, if the supreme court doesn’t rule by the end of the week.

Scully’s complaint also targets Secretary of State Jesse White. But White’s senior legal adviser, Nathan Maddox, explained in a letter to Kasper last June that White’s office only has a “ministerial” role in the process and does not have the power to determine whether a sitting judge is eligible to run for retention.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Courts Commission is set to consider at a Sept. 24 hearing whether to suspend O’Brien from her position without pay. O’Brien’s lawyers insist the Courts Commission — the body authorized to discipline judges — does not have the authority to “discipline a judge for conduct which occurs prior to the judge’s election to the bench.”

Federal jurors found O’Brien guilty earlier this year after prosecutors said she pocketed $325,000 during a mortgage fraud scheme that took place more than a decade ago — before she became a judge.

O’Brien’s sentencing hearing in that case is set for Oct. 9.