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Federal judge refuses to acquit Cook County judge as she clings to the bench

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

For months, a Cook County judge found guilty of fraud has refused to step down from the bench, insisting that the federal judge overseeing her criminal case could still overturn the jury’s verdict.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin shut the door on that possibility, denying several motions made by defense lawyers for Jessica Arong O’Brien, including her request for an acquittal or a new trial.

O’Brien now faces sentencing Oct. 9. A jury found her guilty Feb. 15. And though she has been doing little judicial work, she has been paid $148,900 so far this year, according to a state comptroller database.

Steve Greenberg, O’Brien’s attorney, said he was disappointed by Durkin’s 45-page ruling and insisted the government overreached in its case against O’Brien.

He also said, “I think it’s too soon for her to do anything today.”

“Let her have a minute to absorb the ruling,” Greenberg said. “But obviously, if the conviction stands, she’s not going to be able to continue as a judge.”

Federal jurors found O’Brien guilty 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.

Despite becoming the rare sitting judge to be found guilty in federal court, O’Brien has fought on multiple fronts to keep her job — and even filed paperwork to seek retention in November’s election.

The Illinois Supreme Court suspended O’Brien’s law license back in April. Then, in July, retired Cook County Judge George Scully pointed to the suspension and asked the Illinois Supreme Court to remove O’Brien from the November ballot.

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.

The high court has yet to rule.

The Illinois Courts Commission is also set to consider at a Sept. 24 hearing whether to suspend O’Brien from her position without pay. O’Brien’s lawyers have argued 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.”

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.