ELYRIA — Retired Lorain County Common Pleas Judge Edward Zaleski will take over the criminal docket of county Common Pleas Judge James Burge today.
Zaleski said he was contacted late Thursday afternoon by the Ohio Supreme Court because of a pending request from county Prosecutor Dennis Will asking the state’s high court to remove Burge from all of the cases Will’s office is handling.
Although the Supreme Court has yet to rule on Will’s affidavit of disqualification, Zaleski said until the matter is resolved Burge won’t be allowed to handle criminal cases. According to Will, there are 276 criminal cases and four civil cases his office is involved in pending before Burge.
Zaleski said he will operate out of county Probate Judge James Walther’s courtroom.
Burge called Zaleski “a fine choice” to fill in for him.
In his affidavit, filed Wednesday, Will accused Burge of being biased against his office in addition to physically threatening and sexually harassing members of his staff. He also alleged Burge has made racist remarks, displayed erratic and bizarre behavior and made disparaging comments about a wide spectrum of people, including his fellow judges.
Will also accused Burge of targeting those he felt had wronged him or his family, among them members of Zaleski’s staff. Will wrote that although Zaleski had cleared sick and vacation time payouts and carryover time for his staff when he retired at the end of 2012, Burge tried to block those benefits.
Burge questioned whether the employees were entitled to the money or time and Will had Assistant County Prosecutor Gerald Innes review the judge’s concerns.
Innes concluded it would be proper to provide the compensation to the three employees, including Assistant County Prosecutor Faye Sutton List, who had been Zaleski’s staff attorney.
Among other allegations against Burge are that he stared down prosecutors from the bench, questioned the integrity of some members of Will’s staff and made comments about inflicting physical violence on prosecutors, judges and others.
Will also wrote that Burge blames prosecutors for an ongoing Supreme Court Office of Disciplinary Counsel inquiry into the judge and has told people that he was considering mounting a lawsuit against Will and his senior staff.
“Judge Burge’s threats to personally sue (me) and other senior members of (my) staff and his willingness to use personal funds to do so, demonstrates his hatred, animosity and prejudice against (my) Office,” Will wrote.
Burge has said he intends to refute the allegations against him.
The judge also is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation being run by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office. That probe appears to center, at least in part, on Burge’s finances and his ownership interest in a Lorain building where several local attorneys have their offices.
Will has said he requested the state take over that investigation last year after a sitting judge came to him with allegations that Burge may have engaged in criminal activity. Will has declined to comment on the nature of the allegations and has said his office is no longer involved in the matter.
Lorain County Democratic Party Chairman Anthony Giardini said Thursday he would like to see both sides back down and find a way to work out their differences. Both Will and Burge are Democrats.
“I think this whole thing is unfortunate,” Giardini said. “I do think it’s going to negatively impact at least the perception of the delivery of justice in our county.”
But he also said that when he steps back, he can see things from the point of view of both sides. He said Will, a former Marine and ex-Elyria police captain, and Burge, a former defense attorney with whom Giardini once practiced law, have different perspectives on what constitutes justice.
The public feud, however, isn’t how government is supposed to work, Giardini said.
“It serves no purpose to have this kind of public battling going on because it hurts everybody,” he said.
Will agreed that the turmoil isn’t good, but he also said he felt he had no choice but to bring in the Supreme Court after his other efforts to curb Burge’s behavior failed to address the problem.
Earlier this month following a May 7 incident in which Burge allegedly intimidated Assistant County Prosecutor Jennifer Riedthaler, Will asked Burge’s fellow judges to strip him of his position as administrative judge, bar him from handling criminal cases and force him to undergo an evaluation for his fitness to serve on the bench. The judges refused.
Will said he has an obligation to provide a safe working environment for his staff and make sure his office is treated fairly in court proceedings. He said the incident with Riedthaler convinced him he had to take action.
“I didn’t take this step lightly,” he said.
Burge, who has denied deliberately intimidating Riedthaler, said Thursday he believes he’s been doing what’s right.
“When you stand against tyranny there are consequences. I knew that when I got elected,” Burge said. “This is one of the consequences.”
Although Burge has declined to comment on most of the specific allegations against him in Will’s court filing, he challenged Will’s interpretations of some of his actions in a string of letters he sent to prosecutors this month.
For instance, Will criticized Burge for massaging the shoulders of defendant Derrick Cantu before a May 7 court appearance, but the judge countered in a May 16 letter that he was merely expressing concern over the future of an offender he had met at the Lorain/Medina Community Based Correctional Facility.
“When I saw Mr. Cantu in my jury box for a release hearing, I grabbed his shoulders and admonished him for being a new father, unemployed and in jail,” Burge wrote in the letter.
Burge also has accused Will and other prosecutors of threatening to release a file of embarrassing material on him if the other judges didn’t take action against him. Will denied he kept a file on Burge and has said he wasn’t threatening the judges, but rather seeking their assistance in dealing with the matter so he wouldn’t have to involve the Supreme Court.
Will said he didn’t learn of many of the incidents he recounted in his affidavit until he began preparing it.