MADISON — A Racine County judge will be suspended for five days without pay, after the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that his behavior in two 2014 court cases was “concerning” and “obviously unethical.”

The ruling comes after a panel of three Wisconsin Court of Appeals judges in January recommended that Racine County Circuit Court Judge Michael Piontek be suspended for between 5 and 15 days without pay. Piontek had urged the panel to recommend “a public reprimand only,” the ruling document states.

“A reprimand, public or private, can be perceived as nothing more than a slap on the wrist for what is serious misconduct,” the judicial conduct panel recommendation stated. “A suspension for not less than five days and not more than 15 days is appropriate discipline to foster public confidence in the integrity of the judicial system.”

Over his 45-year legal career, this is the first time Piontek has been the subject of a complaint or grievance.

“I am profoundly sorry for the mistakes I made and deeply regret the negative impact they have had on the judicial, legal and public communities,” Piontek stated in a Jan. 2 letter regarding the commission case. “I deserve the public humiliation of me and my career resulting from front-page newspaper articles in my community.”

Piontek graduated from law school in 1974. He served as Racine County assistant corporation counsel from 1974 to 1975, as a Racine County assistant district attorney from 1975 to 1977, and practiced privately from 1977 to 2012.

Two cases

The first case involved a man charged in 2014 with theft of more than $10,000, making fraudulent claims and obstructing an officer. Piontek, who presided over the case, called the prosecutor from his chambers about the case without notifying or including the defendant’s attorney.

In the phone call, Piontek said that any plea negotiation should involve the defendant being convicted of a felony and those involved in “scams like this” need to be stopped.

The Supreme Court says Piontek appeared to only admit his “obviously unethical” wrongdoing after he was caught.

In the second case, Piontek presided over the sentencing of a former nurse, who had pleaded guilty to several criminal charges. Piontek initiated an independent online investigation about the defendant without telling the parties in the case until after they made their arguments and statements at the sentencing hearing.

The Supreme Court calls it “clearly improper” to conduct the research and not give the defendant’s attorney a chance to respond.

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