Given our long-standing support for Mahoning County Probate Court Judge Robert N. Rusu, we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma.
A complaint has been filed with the Ohio Supreme Court’s Board of Professional Conduct against the judge alleging he failed to recuse himself from at least 200 cases in which he previously had served as an attorney.
State Disciplinary Counsel Scott J. Drexel of the Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed the complaint and is asking the board to find Rusu in violation of the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct and the Code of Judicial Conduct.
To be clear, Rusu, who has been on the bench since 2014, is not facing criminal charges, nor is he accused of using his public position for personal gain. Neither has he been charged with doing favors for friends.
At most, the complaint filed by Drexel amounts to poor judgment.
Rusu insists he has done nothing wrong and that the complaint against him is based on an incorrect reading of the codes of conduct.
Nonetheless, there’s a cloud of suspicion hanging over him that has given us pause.
What he is accused of doing does not rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors, but given the long history of misbehavior by public officials in the Mahoning Valley, we are not prepared to shrug off the allegations against the probate judge.
Indeed, we have invested a considerable amount of time researching Rule 2.11 of the Code of Judicial Conduct. We received guidance from a lawyer who has long served as our editorial legal adviser.
He concluded that Rusu’s involvement as the judge in cases he handled as a probate lawyer did not violate the judicial codes because there was nothing controversial about them.
Rusu also insisted that he did not benefit financially from the disposition of those cases. He pointed out that when he became probate judge, he cut his ties with the law firm in which he was a partner by selling his interest in the firm.
A UNIQUE COURT
The probate court is unique in that the judge largely administers the distribution of an estate’s assets and there rarely are litigants who contest such distribution.
Similarly, if a judge is asked to approve a fiduciary’s fees, and nobody challenges the propriety of those fees, presenting an invoice to the judge for his approval isn’t an adversarial matter.
Rusu has hired a prominent law firm out of Cincinnati and intends to challenge the disciplinary counsel’s reading of the codes of conduct during the hearing before the board of professional conduct.
We would urge all parties to move as expeditiously as possible to schedule the hearing because the longer the matter remains unresolved, the more the judge’s reputation will suffer.
The appearance of impropriety could be as egregious as an actual impropriety if an allegation of wrongdoing remains unresolved.
At this point, we must acknowledge that our immediate reaction to the filing of the complaint by the disciplinary counsel was to call for Judge Rusu’s resignation. But after a great deal of research and deliberation, we have concluded that such a call is unjustified.
A cursory reading of the allegations suggested that the judge had thrown caution to the wind by being involved in the cases that he had handled as a lawyer, and had benefited financially.
But we hit the pause button after taking a close look at the relevant codes and talking to our lawyer.
Rusu’s predecessor, former Probate Judge Mark Belinky, was investigated for engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, tampering with records, bribery, money laundering, theft and theft in office.
Belinky resigned in 2014, and Gov. John R. Kasich appointed Rusu, a well-known, seasoned probate lawyer, to replace him.
Rusu won the general election that year, and since then has received high marks from lawyers who practice in the court.
We supported his appointment and endorsed him in the general election.
He has given us no reason to regret that decision.
But now, with the cloud of suspicion hanging over his head, we urge a quick resolution of the matter.