Two Riverside residents recently appointed as Cook County Circuit Court judges by the Illinois Supreme Court are running to keep their seats on the bench in the March 20 Democratic primary.

But neither Judge David Navarro nor Judge John Andrew O’Meara are endorsed by the Democratic Party in the 4th Judicial Subcircuit in which they are running.

Why not?

According to state Sen. Steve Landek, who is Lyons Township Democratic Committeeman and the mayor of Bridgeview, it’s at least partly because some Democratic officials don’t consider either candidate true Democrats.

“Both [Navarro and O’Meara] were consistent Republican voters,” Landek said. “They only voted Democratic once [that] we see in their life, and we feel that we would rather have somebody who represented more of our constituents’ feelings and histories.”

Navarro and O’Meara are running in two separate Democratic primary races in the 4th Subcircuit, which stretches from Palos Hills in the south to Franklin Park on the north and includes Riverside, Brookfield, and North Riverside.

In O’Meara’s race, which has four candidates, the Democratic Township Committeemen in the subcircuit voted to endorse Riverside resident Martin Reggi, who is making his second run for judge after losing to fellow Riversider John Allegretti in the 2014 Democratic primary.

In his race, Navarro is running against Caroline Jamieson Golden, a lawyer from Countryside. Golden received the Democratic Party endorsement. 

Golden works for the Sotos Law Firm where, according the firm’s website, her practice focuses on defending police officers and prosecutors who are sued in reversed conviction cases.

Prior to that, Golden was a litigation partner at the law firm of Neal, Gerber, and Eisenberg where she did commercial litigation and product liability defense work. Golden has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police and a number of labor unions that typically support the party-endorsed candidate.

Navarro was a prosecutor with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office from 1993 until 2009, when he became the chief of the Public Integrity Bureau of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.

He was appointed as a judge last May and is assigned to the central bond court, presiding over bail hearings and other pretrial matters in criminal cases. 

According to the Cook County Clerk’s office, Navarro voted in the Democratic primary in 2016, but before that consistently voted in Republican primaries. 

Navarro, who grew up in Riverside and has lived there for most of his life, said he voted in Republican primaries primarily due to his friendship with the late Judy Baar Topinka and her family.

Topinka, who served as state treasurer and comptroller after serving in the Illinois General Assembly, was the Republican candidate for governor in 2010. Topinka died in late 2014 shortly after winning a second term as state comptroller.

“Judy Baar Topinka was my Cub Scout leader from second grade,” Navarro said. “Her son, Joe, was my classmate from Blythe Park [School] all the way until he moved for high school. We were family friends and we supported our family friend up till her death and then we didn’t [vote in Republican primaries].”

Navarro said he is supported by Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough, who also serves as Democratic committeeman for Proviso Township, the most populous township in the subcircuit.

Last fall, Navarro made a personal contribution of $200 to the Cook County Democratic Party and also contributed $250 to campaign fund of State. Rep. Chris Welch (D-7th District) who represents the Proviso area in the General Assembly.

O’Meara voted in Republican primaries in 2016, 2012 and 2008. He also voted in the 2010 primary, but no party was listed for his primary vote that year, according to the county clerk’s office.

Judges in Cook County run in party primaries to get on the November general election ballot. No one filed to run as a Republican in the 4th Judicial Subcircuit so winning the primary is tantamount to election.

O’Meara, who was appointed to the bench in 2016, says he considers himself a political independent.

“I have voted in numerous different primaries on all different sides,” O’Meara said. “I’m not really one party or the other.”

O’Meara said that he decided to run for judge in the Democratic primary because that primary is more broad-based and inclusive than the Republican primary.

Landek said that Navarro and O’Meara should have run as Republicans.

“Why would you portray yourself as Democrat if that’s not the case?” Landek said.

One reason not to run as a Republican is that you want to win.

Outside of the 13th Subcircuit, in the far northwest suburbs, and the 12th Subcircuit along the North Shore, Republican candidates for judge face long odds in Cook County.

“If you want to win you have to run in the Democratic primary, basically,” said Jack Leyhane a lawyer who writes a blog focusing on Cook County judicial races.

Since 2010, there have been 62 general election races in the Cook County judicial subcircuits. In only seven of those races did a Republican win, and all those wins came in the 12th and 13th subcircuits. Many races had no Republican candidate.

O’Meara, 51, has lived in Riverside since 2004. He was appointed to the bench in 2016 after being in private practice for more than 20 years focusing mostly on personal injury cases. For his first seven years or so he did defense work before switching to representing plaintiffs. He said he’s tried about 75 cases in front of a jury.

O’Meara has advanced rapidly as a judge. He now presides over a wide range of civil cases in his courtroom at the Richard J. Daley Center in Chicago after brief stops in traffic and eviction court.

Reggi, 65, has been a lawyer for nearly 38 years and has lived in Riverside for 30 years. After beginning his career as a prosecutor, Reggi has been in private practice since 1985. He is a sole practitioner who focuses on criminal defense, secretary of state hearings, real estate work and bankruptcy. 

Last year, Reggi’s campaign made several modest contributions to politicians and political organizations in the 4th Subcircuit.

Citizens to Elect Martin D. Reggi contributed $500 to the campaign fund of Leyden Township Democratic Committeeman Barrett Pedersen, $280 to Landek’s Bridgeview Active Party, $350 to the campaign fund of Cook County Commissioner and McCook Mayor Jeff Tobolski, $350 to the Palos Township Democratic Organization, $250 to the Stickney Township Regular Democratic Organization and $600 to the campaign fund of state Rep. Chris Welch. His campaign also contributed to and $250 to the Bellwood First Party.

One of Reggi’s seven children, Martin Reggi Jr., worked on former Gov. Pat Quinn’s unsuccessful re-election campaign in 2014.

Reggi says that his experience and broad exposure to many types of law make him the most qualified candidate in the race.

There are two other candidates in O’Meara-Reggi race: Elizabeth Ciaccia-Lezza, a prosecutor in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office who lives in Westchester, and Danny Collins of LaGrange, a former assistant state’s attorney who is now a solo practitioner focusing on workman’s compensation cases and other employment matters.

A shorter version of this story appeared in the print edition.

Attorney groups rate 4th Subcircuit candidates

When voters walk into the voting booth on election and stare at the sea of judicial candidates – most of whom they don’t know and have never heard of – they can be forgiven for skipping the whole business.

Unless a sitting judge is particularly incompetent and has generated headlines due to decisions or courtroom demeanor, it’s unlikely there will be much information about his or her performance or qualifications.

That’s why groups like the Chicago Bar Association and Chicago Council of Lawyers publish their own ratings of judicial candidates ahead of elections.

In the Democratic primary races in the 4th Judicial Subcircuit, both of those organizations have weighed in on the candidates.

In the race between Riverside resident David Navarro and Caroline Jamieson Golden, Navarro received a rare “highly qualified” rating from the Chicago Council of Lawyers, which is generally considered the toughest bar rating group. 

The Chicago Council of Lawyers rated Golden rated as “qualified.” The Chicago Bar Association rated both Navarro and Golden as “highly qualified.”

Meanwhile, in the four-way race between Riverside residents Martin Reggi and John Andrew O’Meara, along with Elizabeth Ciaccia-Lezza and Danny Collins, the Chicago Council of Lawyers rates all four candidates as “qualified.” 

The Chicago Bar Association rates O’Meara as “highly qualified,” Ciaccia-Lezza and Collins as “qualified” and Reggi as “not recommended,” stating in its voting guide that “Mr. Reggi does not possess the legal knowledge, ability, practice experience and diligence required to effectively serve as Circuit Court judge.”

Ciaccia-Lezza has the support of 12 west suburban mayors, including Hubert Hermanek Jr. of North Riverside.

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