ELYRIA — Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge on Wednesday removed himself from every case assigned to his courtroom that Assistant County Prosecutor Tony Cillo was handling.
Just last year Burge successfully fended off an effort by Cillo to convince Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor to have Burge tossed from all of Cillo’s cases.
Although there hasn’t been a similar push recently, Burge said he thought it was best for him to stop overseeing cases in which Cillo was involved and focus on his duties as administrative judge and on other cases.
“I have concluded that due to the amount of time spent by assistant county prosecutors who are assigned to the task of preventing me from hearing Attorney Cillo’s cases, the Lorain County taxpayer is being ill-served,” Burge wrote in a statement. “Hopefully my recusal will result not only in better government, but as well, in a better use of the tax dollar.”
County Prosecutor Dennis Will scoffed at Burge’s assertion that his office was wasting time and money on efforts to keep Burge from hearing cases involving Cillo.
“That’s ridiculous,” Will said after being read Burge’s statement. “That’s nonsense.”
Will said his office has only taken steps to remove Burge from cases when they believed there was a clear conflict for the judge and would continue to do so in the future if he thought it was necessary.
“I do my job based on my right to have a proper hearing in court,” he said.
During last year’s push to force Burge off Cillo’s cases, prosecutors argued that the judge had a bias against Cillo that dated back to Burge’s days as a defense lawyer. Burge has long denied that he harbors any bias against Cillo.
O’Connor refused to remove Burge from the cases of Albert Fine, who faces the death penalty if convicted of killing and dismembering his girlfriend, and Shannon Weber, who is accused of twice trying to kill her son.
“Judges are presumed to be capable of putting aside old disagreements with former opposing counsel and attorneys appearing before them, and nothing in Cillo’s affidavits would lead a reasonable person to conclude that Judge Burge has developed such a strong personal bias against Cillo — based on their history — that the judge would be unable to preside fairly over cases involving him,” O’Connor wrote in May.
But the state’s top judge did remove Burge from one case Cillo is involved in, the effort by death row inmate Stanley Jalowiec to win a new trial. Prosecutors had accused Burge of prejudging the case in favor of Jalowiec, an allegation Burge vehemently denied.
O’Connor wrote that Burge’s comments to the media about those allegations ultimately convinced her to remove Burge from the Jalowiec case. She wrote that those “statements could cause the reasonable and objective observer to conclude that the judge has become Cillo’s adversary.”
Burge said Wednesday that his decision removes him from the cases of both Fine and Weber as well as that of Luis Lopez, who is accused of killing his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter.
The judge said he doesn’t intend to take any future cases that Cillo is dealing with, something that could potentially prevent him from dealing with future death penalty cases. As the chief of the criminal division in the prosecutor’s office, Cillo handles capital and other high-profile cases.
But Burge said if Cillo takes a case that has already been assigned to his courtroom, he will stay on that hypothetical case. He said that would prevent prosecutors from simply assigning Cillo to cases to force him off.
The feud over Burge dealing with cases involving Cillo isn’t the first time the judge has clashed with Will’s office over whether he should remain on certain cases. Burge has sometimes removed himself from cases, as he did after he sent a letter to the Ohio Parole Board urging them to free convicted killer Clarence Weaver, whom the judge believes is innocent.
Burge also has suggested that Will and his staff are responsible for the Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel launching an investigation into Burge’s handling of the controversial Head Start child molestation case and other issues.
That inquiry is considered confidential, but Cillo has denied that he or anyone else from Will’s office was behind it.