ELYRIA — Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge on Thursday lifted his own order barring himself from hearing cases being handled by Assistant County Prosecutor Tony Cillo.
Burge in January removed himself from several cases pending in his courtroom that Cillo was assigned to, including a capital murder case.
At the time, Burge said his decision was motivated by a desire to focus on his duties as administrative judge and because of what he saw as a waste of county Prosecutor Dennis Will’s resources on efforts to get the Ohio Supreme Court to kick him off Cillo’s cases.
Burge said Thursday that his January order didn’t have the effect he thought it would.
“When I first recused myself, it was as much for Attorney Cillo’s benefit as mine, so that he could practice in front of a judge or judges with whom he felt more comfortable,” Burge said. “At this juncture, it would appear that my recusal did not solve the problem and the other judges need everyone’s help in resolving these sensitive cases.”
Burge’s January order prevented him from serving on two judicial panels hearing death penalty cases because Cillo works on all capital cases in the county. He was selected to serve on the case of Vincent Jackson Jr. in February, but Will’s office took the issue to Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who determined Burge couldn’t pick and choose which of Cillo’s cases he was involved with.
But O’Connor also wrote in her decision that if circumstances changed, Burge could lift his order and once again take on cases Cillo was assigned to work on.
Will said Thursday he didn’t have an explanation for why Burge had decided he could hear Cillo’s cases again, although he said Burge’s explanation didn’t make much sense to him.
“I’ll deal with it when I have to,” Will said. “I’m not sure what prompted this.”
Will also called Burge’s suggestion that he is wasting resources trying to have the judge removed from certain cases “ridiculous.” Will said he takes that step only when he feels he needs to do so in order to receive a fair hearing.
Burge said Thursday that shouldn’t be a problem.
“I always believed I could be fair,” he said.
Before O’Connor’s ruling in the Jackson case, prosecutors were able to force Burge off only one case. O’Connor ruled last year that Burge’s comments to the media could lead the public to conclude he had become Cillo’s adversary in the case of death row inmate Stanley Jalowiec, who is seeking a new trial.
But O’Connor rejected Cillo’s request for a blanket order removing Burge from all of his cases.
“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 last May.
Burge, a former defense attorney, frequently tried cases against Cillo before he took the bench in 2007.
Since he became a judge, Burge and prosecutors have frequently clashed on issues, most recently a court-run diversion program overseen by the county’s judges that Will contends is illegal under state law.
Will asked the Supreme Court to shut down the four-year-old program earlier this month.