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Drilling company says judge with anti-drilling wife shouldn't hear case

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By Timothy Puko
Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, 2:00 p.m.
 

One of the region's biggest gas drilling firms wants a Washington County judge to remove himself from hearing a company lawsuit because, it claims, the judge's wife is an anti-drilling activist.

Range Resources asked Common Pleas Judge John F. DiSalle during a hearing on Wednesday to recuse himself from the company's lawsuit against Robinson Township. His wife, Diane L. DiSalle, was a founder of the Peters Township Marcellus Shale Awareness Group — which pushed a failed 2011 referendum to ban drilling in Peters. That causes an appearance of impropriety for the judge, the company argued.

The judge, speaking from the bench, denied a Range accusation that he once had an anti-drilling sign in his front yard. His wife, Diane, 57, denied in a phone interview that she is anti-drilling.

DiSalle, 53, said he is unlikely to recuse himself, though he said he will consider it. He implied several times in court that Range may be pushing for his removal because he ruled against one of its business partners in a recent case.

“You're making it sound like some glaring conflict,” the judge told Brian H. Simmons, Range's lawyer from Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Downtown. “Isn't it disingenuous a month after a decision you didn't like that the court gave that (now) you ask for a recusal? ... Doesn't it look this way?”

Simmons told the judge, “If we didn't raise it now, that would be wrong. ... This is a no-brainer.”

DiSalle said he consulted with county President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca in 2011 when he thought the situation might become an issue. She told him cases wouldn't need to be reassigned, he said in court.

But O'Dell Seneca, 59, said she warned her colleague that the DiSalles may want to rethink Diane DiSalle's political work. Diane DiSalle stepped down from leading the group shortly after she founded it because of the implications for her husband, the DiSalles said in phone interviews after court.

“We can't control our family members, but we do try and tell them that what they say and do can affect our ability to hear cases,” O'Dell Seneca said. “We're a small county, and there are only so many of us.”

O'Dell Seneca declined to say whether DiSalle should recuse himself from the case.

Legally, he doesn't have to, said Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University law professor.

“Political activism and law may be associated in the public's mind. But in the court, they're different,” Ledewitz said.

Court protocol assumes judges will not let any of their own opinions influence their interpretations and applications of the law, Ledewitz said. A spouse's political actions have never been grounds for recusal, he added.

Judges have to have demonstrated a personal hostility toward one of the parties or stand to gain personal benefit for themselves or their families from the success of one of the parties, Ledewitz said.

Judge DiSalle's father recently sold property to Range in North Strabane, possibly making it easier for Robinson lawyers to argue he could be biased in favor of Range, he said in court. Robinson does not have a problem with the sale, the township's lead lawyer Jonathan M. Kamin told the judge.

“The township's position is that this is very disingenuous for Range Resources to bring this up,” Kamin said, echoing the judge's skepticism. “It seems that Range Resources' position at this point is to cast a cloud over this court and bully this court.”

Range officials raised the issue because they learned about Diane DiSalle's activism after the judge's other decision, in which he ruled that Cecil officials followed proper procedure in denying a gas compressor station, Simmons said.

Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella, whose testimony is central to the company's claims, learned about Diane DiSalle's activities years ago, Robinson lawyers noted. In written testimony, Pitzarella said she knocked on the door of his Peters home in July 2011 asking him to sign a petition to get a Peters drilling ban referendum on the ballot.

Range took an opposite position on recusal in a 2011 case in South Fayette, lawyers for Robinson said. Range argued then that two township zoning board members should be allowed to hear a case Range brought against the township even though the two both leased gas rights to the company. That case is under appeal, Kamin said.

Pennsylvania Department of State records list Diane DiSalle as the owner of the Peters Township Marcellus Shale Awareness Group, created on Feb. 11, 2011.

“I remember him saying, ‘This probably isn't a good idea because I'm going to have to hear cases,' and I said ‘OK,' ” Diane DiSalle said, adding that it is “ridiculous” to think that her political opinions might bias her husband. “I have my own opinions, as does he.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writer forTrib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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