A Brooklyn legal iconoclast is looking to go from the dock to the bench.
The recently exonerated Sunset Park attorney John O’Hara is running for a judgeship in Brooklyn’s Civil Court. O’Hara — whose controversial conviction for voter fraud was overturned this past January after 20 years — believes he brings a fresh face to the bench that’s necessary for fairness and justice inside the courtroom, said O’Hara, whose license to practice law was also revoked until 2008.
“I bring a perspective that nobody has ever seen before,” said O’Hara, who also ran for seats both in City Hall and Albany. “When you’ve been wrongfully convicted for 20 years of a crime, you immerse yourself in the system and its pitfalls and the faults, because when you’re an attorney and then that license gets taken away, you value it even more.”
Then-District Attorney Charles Hynes — who was alleged to have a personal vendetta against O’Hara for challenging his pal and former Park Slope Assemblyman James Brennan — charged O’Hara with felony voter fraud in 1996, for casting a ballot in the wrong election district.
And one year later in 1997, a judge found O’Hara guilty on all counts — making him the only other person convicted for illegal voting since suffragette Susan B. Anthony, when she cast her own ballot in 1873 before women were even allowed to vote — and sentenced him to five years probation, $20,000 in fines, 1,500 hours of community service, and banned him from practicing law and voting.
But under Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, a judge overturned O’Hara’s conviction six months ago, making this upcoming election his first run for office as a truly free man, he said.
“The feeling is a little strange. Six moths ago I was a convicted felon, and now I’m running for judge,” said O’Hara.
O’Hara’s slate for the Democratic primary in September includes himself and five other candidates, as part of what he is calling a “rage against the machine” to challenge the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s status quo of choosing who gets the gavel.
The party’s Judicial Screening Committee nominates a candidate through the screening process and then backs them — but the process is far from independent, and O’Hara’s slate of six is looking to take on the machine, he said.
“Because the whole so-called independent judicial screening panel is not very independent. We have nothing to do with that,” he said. “Machine-backed candidates, those are the people we are running against. We are all independent candidates.”
Of the six seats for countywide civil court judge, up for election this year, three incumbent justices — Robin Sheares, Carolyn Wade, and Frederick Arriaga — are all running for re-election, and because they already have the backing of the county party none of them are facing a serious challenger.
But O’Hara said that protecting incumbents from challengers is a cozy, anti-democratic tradition that he and his slate intend to buck.
“Where incumbents don’t get a challenger, I call that election rigging,” he said. “This is their tradition that seems to be adopted. We are not playing by those rules — we are running candidates against the incumbents.”
O’Hara’s slate includes Sandra Roper — who ran a failed bid for District Attorney against Hynes in 2001, and whose own allegedly retaliatory felony theft charges were later dropped. O’Hara said he plans to announce the other four candidates next week.
The Kings County Democratic Party is supporting attorneys Connie Melendez, David Pepper, and Patria Frias-Colon for the three open seats, and the party’s tradition is not to oppose a qualified incumbent, said party spokesman Bob Liff, who declined to comment on O’Hara’s slate.
“It is a long-standing policy and tradition that the Executive Committee does not oppose incumbents seeking re-election who have been found qualified by the screening panel,” he said.