Geauga County Commissioners are seeking to remove Geauga County Probate Judge Timothy Grendell from hearing appeals on sewer assessments for two Chardon Township residents.
In a Jan. 30 filing with the Ohio Supreme Court, Gerald Morgan, county administrator, argued on behalf of the commissioners that Judge Grendell cannot be viewed as being impartial because his wife, State Rep. Diane Grendell, has served as an advocate for the two residents. A Feb. 11 hearing in the appeal before Judge Grendell has now been postponed until the matter is resolved.
“The Geauga County Probate Court is vested with jurisdiction over this matter,” Mr. Morgan wrote. “Both Representative [Diane] Grendell and Judge Grendell are fulfilling their duties as elected officials; however, where those duties intersect, disqualification is necessary.”
The county is asking that the court remove Judge Grendell and assign a visiting or retired judge to hear the cases.
Kimberly Laurie, court administrator for Judge Grendell, denied any conflict of interest and noted that the issue had been previously decided by the high court.
“After several hearings in which the court heard from witnesses presented by the county, the county is now seeking to have Judge Grendell disqualified simply because he is married to Rep. Diane Grendell,” Ms. Laurie wrote.
“Then-Chief Justice [Thomas] Moyer addressed this very situation when Tim Grendell was in the [state] legislature and Diane Grendell was an appellate judge [Ohio’s 11th District],” Ms. Laurie continued. “Chief Justice Moyer found that there is no conflict, because Tim and Diane were two separate individuals performing their two separate public duties.”
She wrote the county also waived its right to seek qualification because it has already participated in hearings on the matter.
“It is also the court’s position that the county waived its right to seek disqualification because of the number of hearings conducted in which the county participated and presented evidence, while clearly knowing that Tim Grendell and Diane Grendell are married.”
The court also questions the labeling of Rep. Grendell as an advocate, saying she is neither the residents’ legal counsel nor a witness for them.
The county cites the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct in seeking Judge Grendell’s removal, noting “(a) judge shall disqualify himself or herself in any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” It further cites a 2014 ruling in a disqualification case in which the Justices wrote, “Preservation of public confidence and the integrity of the judicial system is vitally important” and “an appearance of bias can be just as damaging to the public confidence as actual bias.”
The filing points to Rep. Grendell’s contacts with parties involved in the case and news and Internet blog accounts of her involvement.
“According to news reports, State Representative Grendell has been in contact with Mr. (Charles) DiCillo, who is a party in the pending court action in Geauga County Probate Court, in an effort to seek additional testing in the area, and also to seek additional funding for the project.”
Residents of the Chardon Township subdivision, of approximately 114 families and known as Berkshire Heights, are under a 2014 Ohio Environmental Protection Agency order to eliminate their septic systems and pay for a central sewer system. Residents have maintained that the state failed to test a large enough sampling to determine whether the central sewers are necessary.
It also references a Geauga County blog site that discusses the sewer project, the appeals filed and Rep. Grendell’s efforts to assist the residents. “This blog post shows that the public is aware of the cases pending before Judge Grendell and is also aware of the efforts of Representative Grendell to assist the litigants in the case pending before her husband,” it states.
In addition, to the public acknowledgements of the judge’s and representative’s roles, the county notes that Rep. Grendell has been in contact with the Ohio EPA on eight different occasions to lobby on behalf of the residents of Berkshire Heights, including while the appeals were pending before Judge Grendell.
It notes that Ohio law “requires that a judge be disqualified if a judge knows that his spouse has more than a de minimis interest that could be substantially affected by the proceeding.”
“It is clear, based on her (Rep. Grendell’s) efforts to meet and discuss this matter with representatives of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, that Judge Grendell’s spouse, Representative Diane Grendell has more than a de minimis interest in the case … currently pending in the Geauga County Probate Court.”
To further bolster the case for removal, the filing cites the judge’s and representative’s close ties in their campaigns in the March 17 primary.
It points to Judge Grendell appearing in Rep. Grendell’s Facebook feed, supporting her campaign.
“Additionally, Representative Grendell recently appeared in a campaign ad with Judge Grendell paid for by Judge Grendell’s campaign that was published during the pendency of the case before Judge Grendell,” it states.
For all these reasons, county officials wrote they believe Judge Grendell should be removed from the case.
“Judge Grendell’s impartiality would be reasonably questioned by a reasonable person in this case regarding his ability to fairly consider and rule on the matter,” Mr. Morgan wrote. “Judge Grendell must be disqualified to avoid even the appearance of impropriety and to ensure the public confidence in the integrity of the judicial system.
“Because a reasonable and objective observer might harbor serious doubts about Judge Grendell’s impartiality, Judge Grendell should step aside or be removed.”