A county judge in Pennsylvania has refused to remove himself from presiding over a lawsuit filed by Range Resources Corp., stating that he can remain objective in the case despite his wife’s activities with an environmental group opposed to hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

In an order filed Monday, Washington County Court of Common Pleas Judge John DiSalle denied Range’s motion that he step aside and said his wife’s membership in and activities with the organization Peters Township Marcellus Shale Awareness (PTMSA) “has not in any way affected the court’s ability to hear the case” involving Range and Robinson Township.

The judge said Diane DiSalle’s work for PTMSA “does not constitute a circumstance where the court’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned under the code of judicial conduct.” He also said that after a review of the matter with three other judges from the county court, there was agreement from the bench that “this is not a situation where a significant minority of the lay community might also reasonably question the court’s impartiality.”

Range sued Robinson Township on Jan. 28, alleging the municipality has deliberately delayed the approval process for two Marcellus Shale natural gas wells (see Shale Daily, March 14). The township formally denied both permit applications on Feb. 11.

PTMSA drafted a referendum calling for a ban on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Peters Township, then collected enough signatures to have it placed on the Nov. 8, 2011 ballot. The measure asked voters if the township’s home rule charter should be amended to include a “Peters Township Bill of Rights,” which in turn would have banned fracking outright.

Peters Township subsequently sued, and lost, in Washington County Court of Common Pleas to have the question kept off the ballot (see Shale Daily, Oct. 6, 2011; Sept. 15, 2011). But voters overwhelmingly rejected the referendum after the township council warned its passage would make the municipality vulnerable to lawsuits (see Shale Daily, Nov. 10, 2011; Oct. 28, 2011).

According to reports, Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella entered testimony in the Robinson Township case. He said Diane DiSalle, who lived near his home in Peters Township, had knocked on his door in July 2011 and asked him to sign a petition supporting the referendum.

Pitzarella and Brian Simmons, an attorney with Pittsburgh-based law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney who is representing Range in the Robinson Township case, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

According to reports, Pennsylvania Department of State records show PTMSA is owned by Diane DiSalle. The group has a Facebook page with 301 fans but hasn’t posted since Feb. 11, the day Robinson Township denied Range’s permits.

Robinson Township is at the forefront of a legal challenge mounted by municipal governments against the state and Act 13, Pennsylvania’s omnibus Marcellus Shale law. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is weighing whether to uphold or overturn an appellate court ruling that said portions of Act 13 were unconstitutional on the grounds that its limits on local zoning violate municipalities’ right to substantive due process (see Shale Daily, Oct. 18, 2012; July 27, 2012).

A ruling on the state Supreme Court case, Robinson Township et al v. Commonwealth et al, (No. 284-MD-2012), is not expected before June at the earliest.