On Monday, June 17, 2024, WHYY reported that residents suing over the controversial tree clearing at FDR Park in Philadelphia have accused the judge presiding over their case of potential bias.

The lawsuit was filed by a group of South Philadelphia residents and members of the activist organization Save the Meadows in an attempt to stop the $250 million renovation project being conducted by the Fairmount Park Conservancy at FDR Park. The residents claim the planned changes would require approval from other government bodies and would violate the state’s environmental protections. They are opposed to the clearing of hundreds of trees to make way for new artificial turf athletic fields.

Last month, a Court of Common Pleas judge dismissed their case. Days later, the Conservancy felled 48 large “heritage” trees in the former golf course area of the park. The residents appealed to the Commonwealth Court, seeking an order to halt further tree removal until their appeal could be heard. However, Judge Ellen Ceisler denied their request, asserting it would cause “public harm” by potentially jeopardizing a $30 million loan for the project.

In their motion, the residents argued Judge Ceisler should recuse herself from the case due to potential bias. Campaign finance records show Judge Ceisler received substantial donations for her 2017 judicial campaign from Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy, a PR firm run by her ex-husband. The firm also did work promoting the FDR Park renovations for the Conservancy. Matthew McClure, the lawyer representing the Conservancy, also donated to Judge Ceisler’s campaign.

Citing these financial ties between the judge and individuals/organizations involved in the case, the residents believe Judge Ceisler may not be able to render an impartial decision. However, Judge Ceisler refused to recuse herself, calling the allegations “baseless, reckless, and disrespectful.” Larry Ceisler of Ceisler Media also denied the connections would influence the judge’s objectivity.

Experts in judicial ethics had differing opinions on whether recusal was necessary. They acknowledged recusals are common when direct financial conflicts exist but said the ties in this case were more attenuated. However, some research has found campaign contributions can statistically impact judges’ rulings. The residents maintain public confidence in the court requires recusal when even an appearance of bias could exist. With Judge Ceisler remaining on the case, they will continue their appeal in Commonwealth Court.



Source: WHYY