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Could this be the year Cook County voters don’t automatically retain all judges?

Cook County Judge Jessica Arong O'Brien, 49, leaves the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on April 26, 2017.

Cook County Circuit Judge Jessica Arong O'Brien leaving federal court last year. Jacob Kaplan, the party’s executive director, says O’Brien is a prime example of why the party needs to be more critical in its support of retention candidates. | Sun-Times files

No Cook County judge has been voted out of office in 28 years. But a series of unusual occurrences might have voters thinking about changing that in November, when 61 judges are set to be on the ballot seeking retention.


• One judge is on the ballot even as she awaits sentencing after being convicted of mortgage fraud, refusing to abandon the race or her seat. That has Cook County Democratic Party leaders considering a shift from its usual stance in support of retaining all Democratic judges.

• Some lawyers and activist groups have begun a campaign targeting one judge on the November ballot, Matthew Coghlan, who’s being sued by two exonerated men who say that, as a prosecutor, Coghlan worked with then-Chicago police Detective Reynaldo Guevara to wrongly convict them of murder.

• There is also a broader push by a variety of groups to focus voters’ attention on retention races, which typically get little attention.

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who also works on behalf of the Chicago Bar Association, says all of this comes at a time voters are unusually discontented in general, unhappy with events nationally and statewide.

Every six years, Cook County’s circuit judges must get voters’ approval to keep their jobs. They have to get 60 percent of the vote to remain in office.

It isn’t hard. Usually, many people don’t even bother to vote in judicial races. Others routinely follow the recommendations of the Democratic Party to vote “yes on all” — a message conveyed through handouts given to voters as they arrive at polling places, as well as on automated phone messages from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who chairs the county Democratic Party.

Jacob Kaplan, the party’s executive director, says Cook County Circuit Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien is a prime example of why the party needs to be more critical in its support of retention candidates. A federal jury found O’Brien guilty in February of defrauding a lawyer and a real estate agent when she bought two South Side properties a decade ago — years before her 2012 election.

In June, the state Judicial Inquiry Board recommended she be removed from office, a recommendation that’s pending before the Illinois Courts Commission. If the agency removes O’Brien — who has been removed from judicial duties — her name still could be stricken from the ballot, which will be printed Sept. 27.

In the past, judges have run on a united front. In recent years, the Committee for Retention of Judges in Cook County has raised more than $100,000 each election cycle, largely from large law firms, to help ensure that judges are retained. The money goes to advertising, union efforts and the two major political parties, all to push the judges’ retention.

That support matters.

“The money that filters down from political parties in judicial election races basically ensures the worst judges don’t get knocked off the ballot,” says David Melton of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Take the case of former Judge Cynthia Brim, retained by voters even after she was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of assaulting an officer during a confrontation in the lobby of the Daley Center. Brim also had an episode in court in which she stopped the proceedings for a lengthy monologue on race and justice.

Brim pleaded guilty by reason of insanity — but still had the support of the Democratic Party in its campaign literature and in Preckwinkle’s automated calls on behalf of all judicial retention candidates.

This year, the party intends to vet candidates before providing them support, according to Eamon Kelly, who chairs the Cook County Democratic Party’s Judicial Retention Committee. But Kelly says: “We have a process that we’ve set up, and it’s possible that the process could end in us saying that everybody should be retained.”

Meanwhile, a group of organizations have banded together to try to keep judges they view as problematic from keeping their seats. Attorney Brendan Shiller has created a Judicial Accountability Political Action Committee, focusing on Coghlan. Shiller and others hope that by focusing on one candidate this time, they might get voters to no longer retain judges no matter their record.

Organizations such as Chicago Votes and the People’s Lobby also have begun education campaigns, including community meetings, hoping to help voters learn more about the candidates and the importance of voting.

Suffredin says he thinks all of this might get more people to the polls.

“I think we’re going to see a significant percentage increase in turnout,” he says. “And there are going to be people who are mad, and that’s why they’re turning out.”

Alecia Richards and Elena Sucharetza are reporters for Injustice Watch, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit journalism organization that conducts in-depth research to expose institutional failures that obstruct justice and equality.