The judge who for five years has presided over the Jerry Sandusky case - through his trial, sentencing, and now ongoing appeal - withdrew from further proceedings Friday with a scorching opinion that accused the former football coach's lawyers of ethical lapses and launching baseless attacks against him.

Senior Judge John M. Cleland said he had found little merit in any of Sandusky's arguments seeking to overturn his 2012 conviction on 45 counts of child sexual abuse.

But, the judge wrote, groundless attacks on his impartiality - lodged by Sandusky's lawyers for the first time this week - required him to remove himself from the appeal just as it neared its conclusion after two years of halting progress.

He called the lawyers' move outside the bounds of the legal profession and urged the Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to investigate their conduct.

"In the current national environment in which some have chosen to embroil the courts and judges in controversy for less than honorable motives, the reality is that courts must err on the side of demonstrating fairness," Cleland wrote in the eight-page filing in Centre County Court. "Counsel have elected to call into question my fairness and impartiality. ... It would be imprudent to allow such a cloud to linger and to permit it to cast a shadow of legitimacy on the court, or any decision I would make."

Cleland's decision reset the clock on Sandusky's latest push for a new trial - a bid that so far has played out in court as a presentation of behind-the-scenes gossip from the trial, conspiracy theories, and acrimonious finger-pointing.

A new judge must now be brought in to consider the appeal, possibly call new hearings for testimony that has already been heard, and ultimately decide if Sandusky, 72, has any legitimate reason to challenge the case that ended with his being sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison.

A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office declined to comment Friday, as did Sandusky's lead lawyer, Al Lindsay. After the latest appeals hearing two weeks ago, the former Pennsylvania State University assistant coach's lawyer had said he thought the proceedings were going well.

Among other claims, Lindsay has argued that Sandusky's trial lawyers provided a woefully ineffective defense and lacked the time, expertise, and resources to fairly represent him.

In four hearings this year, the lawyer also lashed out at nearly everyone else associated with the case.

He accused the state prosecutors from the 2012 trial - Joe McGettigan, Frank Fina, and Jonelle Eshbach - of lying to jurors and leaking information on the grand jury investigation to the media. He called one Sandusky accuser to the witness stand only to insist that the man had recently recanted his story of abuse - an allegation the accuser denied.

Cleland, a 68-year-old McKean County native, had been drawn out of retirement in 2011 to preside over Sandusky's trial because all of Centre County's judges recused themselves due to their ties to Penn State and Sandusky's children's charity, the Second Mile.

He brought with him a reputation for a level head and a fair-minded approach he took as chairman of the state commission impaneled to investigate the "kids-for-cash" corruption scandal that plagued Luzerne County's juvenile court in 2008.

Throughout Sandusky's trial and the ensuing challenges, he has watched dutifully from the bench, only occasionally showing flashes of impatience or confusion.

But Friday's opinion made clear he had reached his limit.

Sandusky's attorneys "have impugned the competence and integrity of essentially everyone associated with the grand jury's investigation into [his] conduct, [his] trial and conviction and these post-conviction proceedings," Cleland wrote. "Now they have chosen to impugn the integrity of the court himself."

Lindsay's latest dispute with the judge centers on a December 2011 meeting among prosecutors, the judge, and Sandusky's trial lawyer, Joe Amendola, on the eve of what was supposed to be the coach's preliminary evidentiary hearing.

Amendola testified in August that he informed Cleland during that gathering at the Hilton Garden Inn in State College that he intended to forgo the proceeding over concerns that prosecutors might try to increase Sandusky's bail.

Lindsay argues that that decision was a mistake that cost Sandusky the opportunity to hear from and confront accusers who would later testify at his trial. In a court filing Monday, he also accused Cleland of pressuring Amendola into that decision.

Cleland denied that he had any influence and objected to Lindsay's characterization of the gathering as a clandestine and "off-the-record nighttime meeting."

He said he arrived only after Amendola had made up his mind.

"Counsel has argued not only that the meeting between the lawyers . . . and me was unethical, but has also cast it in tones that would lead one to believe it was somehow sinister," the judge wrote in his opinion.

Cleland said he could have simply ignored the claims and ruled on the merits of the appeal. "Under the unique facts and circumstances of this case, however," he wrote, "I believe recusal is the proper course."

jroebuck@phillynews.com215-854-2608 @jeremyrroebuck