ELYRIA — Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will on Wednesday asked the Ohio Supreme Court to bar county Common Pleas Judge James Burge from hearing any case his office is handling.
In his wide-ranging request, Will accused Burge of physically intimidating and sexually harassing prosecutors, making racist comments, trying to use his position to secure a county job for his wife and pressuring attorneys to contribute to his re-election campaign.
The affidavit of disqualification will immediately halt proceedings in every case in Burge’s courtroom that Will’s office is involved with. Will wrote his office has 276 criminal cases and four civil cases pending before Burge.
Will’s staff fanned out across the county Wednesday evening, dropping off copies of the documents at the offices of 30 attorneys whose cases will be affected. Other attorneys were mailed copies.
Burge said he was served with a copy and while he hadn’t fully reviewed it, he plans to fight the accusations leveled against him.
“I have every confidence I will be able to refute these allegations,” he said.
Will wrote that he has tried a variety of other means to deal with the problems his staff has encountered when dealing with the judge, but those haven’t been effective and he felt he had no choice but to involve the Supreme Court.
“Those futile efforts have resulted in a sitting judge alleging criminal behavior by Judge Burge, and in Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys being physically intimidated, sexually harassed and belittled,” Will wrote. “Judge Burge’s actions have neither ceased, nor abated; instead, they continue to increase in both frequency and severity. (I have) now reached the point where (my) employees are in fear for their physical safety in Burge’s courtroom.”
Burge has said he believes he is the subject of an ongoing investigation into a county judge by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office. Although the full scope of that probe is unknown, it appears to include a review of Burge’s finances and his ownership interest in a Lorain office building where several local attorneys rent space.
Slurs and harassment
Will accused Burge of making racially- and sexually-charged statements over the years, including while court was in session.
For instance, Will wrote, Burge made repeated comments about the looks of Assistant County Prosecutor Sherry Glass, who was once assigned to Burge’s courtroom and requested to be transferred.
Will wrote that Burge has referred to Glass as a “blond bombshell,” frequently commented on her appearance and encouraged young male attorneys to “hit on her.”
During one hearing in a murder case, while Glass was speaking with the judge and the defense attorney at the bench, Burge complemented her on her “librarian look” and said that if she took off her glasses and let her hair down, “Wow, what I would do to you,” according to the documents.
Burge’s alleged sexual comments weren’t confined to Glass. Will wrote that Burge had a habit of walking into the pretrial room where Glass and other female attorneys were working and declaring, “Look what I get to see every morning.”
Burge also is accused of holding a low opinion of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and once told a fellow judge, a bailiff and a prosecutor in 2008 that “In the words of Judge Roy Bean, I wouldn’t waste my seed or bullets on her.”
Burge supported President Barack Obama in that presidential race.
He also allegedly made comments to then-Magistrate Joe Tackett that his wife, who is black and Irish, was a “Beulah,” which Will wrote is a racially derogatory term for a female house slave, because she supported Clinton.
Those comments came after another magistrate, Charlita Anderson-White, who is black, ruled against Burge’s wife, attorney Susan Burge, during a juvenile court case. Burge told Anderson-White that he planned to run his wife against her boss, Domestic Relations Judge Debra Boros, and that she would be the first one fired if Susan Burge won the race.
After his conversation with Anderson-White, Burge went next door to see Tackett, who later told Anderson-White that Burge had referred to her as an “Uncle Tom” and “Aunt Jemima.”
Burge also allegedly used other racial epithets, including the N-word and “homeboys” to describe black defendants and “crackers” when discussing white people. He once referred to the state of Georgia as a “bunch of angry crackers,” Will wrote.
Will also accused Burge of inquiring about the race of victims or those who purchased drugs because “he would consider a harsher penalty if the victim or purchaser was Caucasian and the Defendant was African American.”
Tackett, who briefly served as Burge’s bailiff in 2013 and now works for Will, also accused the judge of holding anti-Christian views. Will wrote that Burge told Tackett, a Christian, he would like to issue a court order confiscating all Bibles. Tackett also told Will that Burge referred to Catholics as “cannibals.”
“Despite these strongly held animosities, Burge repeatedly told Tackett that he received visions and messages from God that he wanted to share with Tackett,” Will wrote. “Judge Burge had further expressed to Tackett that he had the ability to heal people of their illnesses by laying hands on them, and that he had healed his former bailiff of his cancer.”
Burge also was accused in the documents of other inappropriate behavior both on and off the bench, including insulting both defense attorneys, prosecutors and others. Will wrote that in one instance, Burge warned a defendant that if he received another call from the man’s mother, whom he knew, “I’m going to choke her and you to death and then throw your dead body in jail.”
In another instance, Will wrote, Burge wrote out a not guilty by reason of insanity plea for a defendant in an attempted murder case, ordered his secretary to type it, had the defense attorney sign the document and had his bailiff file it.
Burge’s inappropriate comments also were directed as his fellow judges, Will wrote. Tackett reported that Burge described other judges as “sociopaths” and “greedy hogs.”
Tackett told Will that Burge didn’t like Judge Mark Betleski and wanted “to take a machete and bury it in the heads of various people, specifically including Judge Betleski.”
Will wrote that Judge John Miraldi, who took the bench in 2013, once told him that he believed Burge was “motivated by pure, unadulterated hatred because neither he nor anyone else would hire Susan Burge,” among other reasons.
Will wrote that Judge Burge made several attempts to secure work for his wife in various county jobs, including as a magistrate for Domestic Relations Judge Frank Janik because of his support for Janik during the 2012 election.
“When no job offer was made, Burge indicated a desire to run in an election against sitting Lorain County Court of Common Pleas Judge Christopher Rothgery, who is the brother-in-law of Judge Janik,” Will wrote. “Burge planned to do this in retaliation for the perceived slight by Janik and to extend his own time on the bench when he would have otherwise been barred, due to age, from running for re-election.”
Burge made a similar unsuccessful effort to secure work for his wife as a magistrate at the Lorain County Juvenile Detention Home, Will wrote. Burge allegedly blamed his wife’s not winning that position on Domestic Relations Judge Lisa Swenski.
Will also wrote that Elyria defense attorney Kenneth Lieux told two prosecutors that he felt Burge was “shaking down” attorneys for $500 for a political fundraiser.
Lieux said Wednesday that he didn’t believe he’d used the term “shaking down,” but he did refuse to buy tickets from Burge because the judge was unopposed in his 2012 re-election bid. Lieux said it’s common for judges and other politicians to seek donations for their campaigns.
Will wrote Lieux suspected that Burge was favoring his former law partner, Lorain attorney Jack Bradley. In one case, Will wrote, Lieux had asked for his client to be let out of custody, a request Burge denied, although he granted it when the client hired Bradley, who made the same request.
Bradley said he’s never received any favorable treatment from Burge.
“I like a level playing field and I’ve always felt what we have in Lorain County is a level playing field,” he said.
Bradley, who received a copy of the documents Wednesday evening, said he was surprised by the sweeping allegations against Burge as well as the timing.
“I’m more surprised that if these things were happening since 2007 they weren’t brought to light when Judge Burge was running for re-election,” he said.
Lorain attorney Mike Duff said he’s always received fair treatment in Burge’s courtroom and felt that much of what Will has accused Burge of doing was simply jokes the judge had told.
“They’re trying to paint him as someone who’s evil and he’s not,” Duff said. “He’s always been fair to my clients, especially my minority clients.”
Duff also expressed concern that Will appeared to have spent years gathering ammunition to use against Burge.
“This is kind of frightening,” he said. “They start a file on you and mark down every little thing that you do that they find inappropriate.”
In a letter to Burge dated Wednesday, Will denied he had kept a file on the judge since 2007, when Burge took the bench.
Burge accused Will earlier this month of having kept a file on him since his second week in office and threatening to release it to the media if his fellow judges didn’t remove him as administrative judge and bar him from hearing criminal cases. The other judges refused that request.
Will has denied he was trying to intimidate the judges. He has said he approached the other judges because he wanted to handle the matter locally rather than involve the Supreme Court.
“This has been a problem that has been ongoing and it’s been known to other people and they should have taken action,” Will said Wednesday.
Burge also is the subject of an ongoing confidential inquiry by the Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
Will wrote in his court filing that what precipitated Wednesday’s filing was Burge’s conduct toward Assistant County Prosecutor Jennifer Riedthaler.
He wrote that on May 7, Riedthaler was waiting in Burge’s courtroom with an Elyria police detective when the judge came in told them using foul language that he was having a bad day. When Riedthaler asked what was wrong, Will wrote, Burge slammed his hands down on the table and leaned over to her.
“‘You will know in about two minutes. I don’t want to yell at you in front of everyone,’” Burge was quoted as telling Riedthaler.
The judge then began pacing behind Riedthaler, who Will wrote was “upset and frightened from the verbal and non-verbal interaction with Judge Burge.”
A short time later, Will wrote, a deputy brought a prisoner into the courtroom for a hearing and Riedthaler again asked Burge what was wrong. He then grinned and said “I’m over it.”
Burge then walked over to the defendant, Derrick Cantu, and began joking with him and massaged Cantu’s shoulders. Will wrote. The judge also asked the deputy to remove Cantu’s handcuffs so he could punch him in the face.
After Cantu pleaded out to theft and forgery charges during a hearing in which Burge allegedly commented on the attractiveness of Cantu’s girlfriend, the judge jokingly told the deputy to punch Cantu in the face, Will wrote.
Given what happened with Riedthaler in May and during other incidents, Will wrote he now sends two prosecutors to Burge’s courtroom to guarantee their safety.