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Judge Celebrezze removed from controversial Cuyahoga County divorce case

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Wednesday, September 20, 2023   

By Mark Puente for The Marshall Project.
Broadcast version by Nadia Ramlagan for Ohio News Connection reporting for the Marshall Project-Public News Service Collaboration

Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Judge Leslie Ann Celebrezze violated court rules when she steered a contentious but lucrative divorce case involving a longtime friend to her own docket, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled.

The ruling bars Celebrezze from overseeing the case, in which she has faced numerous bias allegations from attorneys for Jason Jardine, a Strongsville businessman who is getting divorced. The allegations raised questions about the friendship between Celebrezze and receiver Mark Dottore.

Dottore is the judge’s lifelong family friend, who has been paid more than $500,000 in fees since 2017 for working as a court-appointed receiver in divorce cases in Celebrezze’s courtroom.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy’s decision permanently removes Celebrezze from the divorce case of Jardine. It does not yet affect Dottore’s assignment as receiver.

Kennedy didn’t consider Jardine’s bias allegations. Instead, the judge found the point moot because Celebrezze violated court policy when she unilaterally moved Jardine’s case to her docket after another judge recused herself.

Kennedy disqualified Celebrezze to avoid an appearance of impropriety, the ruling states.

“Judge Celebrezze was not randomly assigned to Jardine’s case. The failure to randomly assign the case was in violation of the local rules,” Kennedy wrote in her ruling released Friday.

“Therefore, to allay any concerns about the integrity of the underlying case, and to ensure to the parties and the public the unquestioned neutrality of an impartial judge, Judge Celebrezze is disqualified.”

Celebrezze declined to comment. The Jardine case, according to the court’s online docket, has been reassigned to Judge Diane Palos, who joined the court in 2009.

In a written response to the allegations seeking her removal, Celebrezze said that it was her practice to reassign complex and contentious cases to herself. Kennedy balked at the claim.

“Each judge of that court is presumed competent to handle any assigned case, even complex and contentious matters,” Kennedy wrote.

“Regardless of Judge Celebrezze’ s intention, the purpose of randomly reassigning cases after one judge recuses is defeated when the administrative judge handpicks a case to keep for herself.”

Kennedy also ruled that Judge Tonya Jones violated local rules when she recused herself from Jardine’s case in August 2022 and reassigned the case to Celebrezze.

Jones stepped aside because “her former staff attorney left employment with the court and accepted employment with” Jardine’s attorney, the court previously said.

“Judge Jones was without authority to issue an order recusing from the case and reassigning the matter to Judge Celebrezze,” Kennedy wrote.

Jones also declined to comment.

Meanwhile, the controversy around Celebrezze and Dottore has widened.

Georgeanna Semary, Celebrezze’s judicial assistant since 2009, contends she was transferred out of the judge’s office in April and forced to take a $20,000 pay cut after she allowed The Marshall Project - Cleveland to review public records involving Dottore or his company, court records show.

Semary provided a reporter with copies of billing invoices from Dottore’s firm contained in the public file.

After the demotion and pay cut, Semary retained the Chandra Law Firm, which specializes in civil rights cases. In anticipation of a lawsuit, Chandra Law attorneys earlier this month requested copies of court policies, emails, pay records and other documents to better understand why Semary was demoted after The Marshall Project - Cleveland published a story about Celebrezze.

“This should also include any documents that reflect why Ms. Semary’s job was changed on or about the day that The Marshall Project published an article about Judge Celebrezze,” attorney Subodh Chandra wrote in a request to the court

“If Ms. Semary did something wrong that merited adverse actions against her, we expect to receive the records that document that.”

Earlier this summer, The Marshall Project - Cleveland reported that the volume of work Celebrezze gave to Dottore raises questions over whether the judge usurped case assignment policy to drive lucrative cases to her friend.

The Marshall Project - Cleveland noted that the court’s rules state: “When it is necessary for a case already assigned to a judge to be reassigned due to a recusal, the administrative judge will reassign a judge, at random, and record the reassignment on the docket.”

Additionally, three of the court’s other judges each told The Marshall Project - Cleveland that they have never seen the need to appoint receivers in divorce cases.

In complex divorce cases, judges can appoint receivers — often charging couples thousands of dollars — to act as neutral parties to control marital property, including real estate, cash and businesses. Receivers have the sole authority to manage the businesses and assets at their discretion throughout the litigation.

Kennedy temporarily removed Celebrezze from the Jardine divorce case on May 18 after Jardine’s attorneys filed an affidavit of disqualification to remove her from the case.

Celebrezze has known Mark Dottore most of her life. Dottore has served as a receiver on cases in her courtroom, as well as many other area judges, on numerous occasions. He also served as campaign treasurer when she ran successfully for her judgeship in 2008. Her campaign headquarters is listed under his business address.

Government watchdogs have suggested that the close relationship raises questions about transparency in Celebrezze’s courtroom and whether she rules without bias in cases involving Dottore and his company.

Kennedy’s ruling marks at least the second time since 2009 that Celebrezze has been removed from a divorce case in which Dottore was assigned as receiver.

Celebrezze made headlines that year after the Ohio Supreme Court ordered her removal from a divorce case involving Marc Strauss, a wealthy real estate developer. Dottore was also the receiver in the case and cited as a reason to disqualify Celebrezze, The Plain Dealer reported in May 2009.

Mark Puente wrote this article for The Marshall Project.

This collaboration is produced in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the George Gund Foundation.

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