Laura Ayala Gonzalez

John O’Meara loves being a judge. So, the Riverside resident is making another attempt to wear the robe of a Cook County Circuit Court Judge. 

O’Meara, 54, served as an appointed Cook County Circuit Court Judge from 2016 to 2018 but was narrowly defeated by Elizabeth Ciaccia-Lezza in a four-way 4th Judicial Subcircuit primary back in 2018. That race also included another Riverside resident, Martin Reggi.  

Ciaccia-Lezza, a prosecutor who was endorsed by the Cook County Democratic Party, defeated O’Meara by just 745 votes, less than 2 percent of the votes cast in the race.

With no vacancies in the 4th Subcircuit this year, O’Meara is running countywide in the March 17 Democratic primary and again faces a difficult challenge in the form of Laura Ayala-Gonzalez, a prosecutor who has been endorsed by the Cook County Democratic Party. There’s also a third candidate, whose name on the ballot appears as U. O’Neal.

Since leaving the bench at end of 2018, O’Meara has been working as an administrative law judge for the Illinois Department of Labor.

“In my opinion being a judge is the highest calling a lawyer can strive for, and I really enjoyed it,” O’Meara said. “As a lawyer you get a chance to help individuals or families one at a time, but as judge I get the satisfaction out of handling and resolving disputes on a daily basis.”

As a judge O’Meara presided over a busy civil trial courtroom in the Daley Center. O’Meara received his bachelor’s degree from Eastern Illinois University and received his law degree in 1995 from the John Marshall Law School.

“The majority of people who are judges don’t have a lot of civil experience, and that’s one of the things that I offered,” O’Meara said.

O’Meara has been endorsed by the Chicago Tribune and is rated highly by the bar associations that evaluate judicial candidates. The Chicago Bar Association rates O’Meara as highly qualified, while the Illinois Bar Association and Chicago Council of Lawyers rate O’Meara as qualified. 

Ayala-Gonzalez, a felony supervisor for the Cook County State’s Attorney who lives in Western Springs, is rated as qualified by all three bar associations. The Chicago Council of Lawyers said that Ayala-Gonzalez has good legal ability and substantial trial experience in complex matters and is reported to have a very good temperament. 

The Chicago Council of Lawyers said that O’Meara has good legal ability and substantial litigation experience in more complex matters as well as a good temperament.

O’Neal, who changed his name from Ubochi Osuji, was rated as “not recommended” by all three bar associations after he did not participate in their screening process. An Irish name is traditionally considered an advantage in Cook County judicial races. 

Having the endorsement of the Cook County Democratic Party is a big advantage in judicial races, where most voters have no idea who they are voting for. It means the endorsed candidate’s name will appear on party campaign literature and palm cards.

O’Meara voted in Republican primaries in 2008, 2012, and 2016, which makes it almost impossible for him to earn the endorsement of the party.

“I think voters nowadays are more independently thinking and they don’t necessarily follow lockstep with what the Democratic Party suggests.” O’Meara said.

O’Meara, 54, said his judicial experience sets him apart from his two opponents.

“I’m the only candidate in my race who has judicial experience at all,” O’Meara said.

Ayala-Gonzalez, 44, has spent her entire career with the Cook County State’s Attorney Office. She started her career in the Child Support and Juvenile Justice Bureau, but she has spent much of her career as a felony prosecutor, rising to become a felony trial supervisor. 

Ayala-Gonzalez told the Landmark she has dedicated her career to public service and that being a judge would be the culmination of a path that she has been on since she was a young girl.

“I think this was actually always a goal of mine since I was very young,’ Ayala-Gonzalez said.

Ayala-Gonzalez was born in El Paso, Texas and spent much of her early childhood in Mexico before moving to Melrose Park when she was 6 or 7. She was raised by a single mother who was a hair dresser. Ayala-Gonzalez graduated from Trinity High School and Bradley University before getting her law degree from John Marshall. 

In her spare time, Ayala-Gonzalez has been active in the Illinois Women’s Bar Association and has done volunteer work helping in immigration cases and with victims of domestic violence.

“[Community work] is something that I’ve done because I believe in giving to back to communities and that’s something the neither of my competitors ever do,” Ayala-Gonzalez said.

Ayala-Gonzalez has a number of endorsements that often go to party-backed candidates or prosecutors, including ones from the Chicago Federation of Labor, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge Number 7, the Polish American Police Association and the Personal PAC.

O’Meara said running countywide is much different than running a judicial subcircuit as he did two years ago. 

“When you are running countywide, there are at least five-and-a-half million people in the county, and you can’t shake enough hands, meet enough people to make a difference on retail type of basis,” O’Meara said.