ELYRIA — Three female defense attorneys have written affidavits defending Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge against allegations he sexually harassed female attorneys and engaged in other improper behavior.
“We felt it was the right thing to do under the circumstances because what was being said about Judge Burge was not our experience in that courtroom or with him as a person,” Elyria attorney Jenifer Berki said Wednesday.
County Prosecutor Dennis Will has accused Burge of being biased against his office, intimidating and sexually harassing prosecutors, making racist comments and trying to use his influence to obtain a government job for his wife.
Burge has denied wrongdoing and is preparing a response to Will’s request to the Ohio Supreme Court seeking to have him barred from hearing cases in which Will’s office is involved.
“I have never felt sexually harassed or objectified by Judge Burge,” Karri King, who works for Berki’s law firm, wrote in her affidavit. “I have also never felt physically threatened or intimidated by Judge Burge. I very much respect the women who work for the Lorain County Prosecutor’s Office and consider them to be my friends, but I cannot say that I have ever witnessed any occasions where Judge Burge appeared to be overly aggressive or violent.”
Will has said that he felt compelled to take action last month after a May 7 incident in which Burge allegedly intimidated Assistant County Prosecutor Jennifer Riedthaler.
Will wrote in his affidavit that Burge entered the courtroom that morning and cursed while telling Riedthaler and an Elyria police detective that he was having a bad day. After Riedthaler asked what was wrong, Burge allegedly slammed his hands down on the table and leaned over her.
“You will know in about two minutes. I don’t want to yell at you in front of everyone,” Burge allegedly said.
Will wrote that Burge then began pacing behind Riedthaler, upsetting and frightening her. The judge later grinned and told her he was “over it” when she asked him what the problem was.
Berki wrote that she was in the courtroom during the incident between Burge and Riedthaler.
“I consider that prosecutor a friend and cannot in any way speak to the way he made her feel,” she wrote. “However, I did not feel that I was in a threatening environment at that time. To me it was business as usual. Additionally, I have not witnessed any comments that I felt were inappropriate or demeaning.”
Rula Raphael, another Elyria attorney, wrote that Burge has always made her feel comfortable in his courtroom, both as a female and as a person of Middle Eastern descent.
“Judge Burge has always expressed a positive interest in and respect for my ethnic beliefs and traditions and a desire to understand my diverse background,” she wrote. “I have felt comfortable and at ease to discuss any topic around Judge Burge due to his pretrial room and courtroom being known as a place for a candid open forum.”
Berki wrote that the “comedic relief” in Burge’s courtroom often helps break the tension.
King wrote that the rooms where defense attorneys and prosecutors meet to discuss cases are places “for negotiating and ‘letting off steam.’” She wrote that such an atmosphere is important for attorneys to speak freely and one that she doesn’t want to change.
“I have heard attorneys (defense attorneys and prosecutors) make jokes and other statements that if published, would cause great embarrassment,” she wrote. “I myself have made statements that I would not want the public to hear.”
In her affidavit, which along with those of King and Raphael, was delivered to Burge on Wednesday, Berki wrote that the “war” between Burge and Will needs to end.
“It is no secret that the Prosecutor’s Office and Judge Burge do not have the best relationship,” Berki wrote. “It has made practicing in that courtroom very difficult, especially when the prosecutors keep changing. However, this disdain for each other does not in my opinion require the removal of an elected official from office, just as it does not warrant the removal of the Prosecutor. I am sure if a file was kept on any one of us, there would be things present that may not be considered professional.”
Burge, who also is the subject of an inquiry by the Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel and an ongoing state criminal investigation that focuses in part on his finances, declined to comment on the documents given to him by Berki, King and Raphael.
Will said he hadn’t reviewed the women’s affidavits, although he stands by what he filed with the Supreme Court.
“They have the ability to respond in whatever way they feel appropriate,” Will said.