ELYRIA — The Ohio Supreme Court’s ethics arm has filed a complaint against former Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge over his conviction on misdemeanor charges last year as well as comments he made during his stormy tenure on the bench.
Burge did not return a call seeking comment Friday, but has previously insisted that he did nothing illegal and is appealing his conviction.
The Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel has been investigating Burge for years, but this is the first time he’s actually faced ethics allegations. Investigations into misconduct by judges and attorneys are considered confidential until a formal complaint is brought, but Burge previously has acknowledged the long-running probe, which he has blamed on his long-running feud with county Prosecutor Dennis Will.
Burge resigned in 2015 after a jury convicted him of misdemeanor charges of falsification and felony charges of tampering with records, although the felonies were later reduced to misdemeanors because of a technical error in how the jury verdict forms were prepared by Visiting Judge Dale Crawford.
The allegations against Burge centered on his failure to disclose his interest in Whiteacre North, a company that owned 600 Broadway, where Burge’s law officers were housed before he took the bench in 2007.
Burge and his business partners had tried to sell the building to another lawyer, but the deal fell apart in early 2011 and Burge sold his stake in the company to his wife in June 2011 for $1.
The complaint also alleges that between February and June 2011, Burge appointed lawyers who had offices in the building to cases and approved payments to them in his capacity as a judge without disclosing that information to prosecutors.
Disciplinary Counsel Scott Drexel also wrote that Burge had engaged in “rude and discourteous behavior” while he was serving as a judge, including making racially charged comments from the bench, such as referring to defendants who appeared before him “crackers.”
He also allegedly once told his bailiff when there was a disturbance in the courtroom to “quiet those homeboys down.”
During another case, the complaint said, Burge told a defendant that he might have a deputy shoot him in the head. In another instance, Burge is accused of improperly serving as a Spanish translator in a case and in another instance misapplying the law as to what constitutes rape under Ohio law.
The complaint also accused Burge of sending an inflammatory letter to several state legislators, including then-state Rep. Lynn Slaby, who had previously served on the 9th District Court of Appeals.
Slaby had proposed a law that would have required prosecutors to agree to have cases tried to a judge instead of a jury. Currently, the decision of whether to have a bench or jury trial is entirely up to a defendant.
In the letter, written on official stationary, Burge wrote that the proposal was “nothing more than the hobgoblin of a small-minded, mouth-breathing, Tea Party-type whose political style and abilities uniquely qualifies him to do nothing.”
Burge also referred to the appeals court where Slaby once served as “nothing more than an affirmative action program for intellectually challenged, Summit County Republican lawyers,” according to the complaint.
Burge argued in the letter that defense attorneys only take cases to a jury “when they need smoke and mirrors to win” and giving prosecutors a say would allow them to do the same.
“He wants prosecutors to be able to use smoke, mirrors, emotion and bias to carry the day when their cases are not supported by proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Burge, whose own case was tried to a jury, wrote in the letter.
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