RACINE — A state judicial oversight panel has recommended that a Racine County judge serve a temporary suspension after what the Wisconsin Judicial Commission alleges was misconduct in office.
On Jan. 17, a panel of three Wisconsin court of appeals judges recommended that Racine County Circuit Court Judge Michael J. Piontek be suspended for between five and 15 days without pay.
The decision was made after Piontek urged the panel to recommend “a public reprimand only,” the 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 states. “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.”
The recommendation will now go to the Wisconsin Supreme Court which will review the panel’s report, adopt findings and conclusions and determine the appropriate sanction or other disposition.
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.
Over his 45-year legal career, this is the first time Piontek has ever 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.”
‘Improper’ phone call
The Wisconsin Judicial Commission complaint, which was filed in June, alleges violations against Piontek in two cases dating back to 2014.
The first case involved a man charged in 2014 with theft of more than $10,000, making fraudulent claims and obstructing an officer.
The Judicial Commission’s complaint alleges that Piontek, who presided over the case, called the prosecutor from his chambers about the case and did not notify or include the defendant’s attorney.
During the call, Piontek allegedly said he believed any plea deal should include a felony conviction of the defendant and that “people like (the defendant) who involve themselves in scams like this need to be stopped.”
The prosecutor later submitted a letter summarizing the phone call and sent a copy to the defendant’s attorney and Piontek. The judge subsequently recused himself from the case; however, the oversight commission argues Piontek did not recuse himself quickly enough.
The Judicial Commission also argues that Piontek’s phone call violated the Supreme Court’s prohibition of ex parte communications concerning pending matters.
The judicial panel alleges that Piontek — at least twice — denied the contents of the prosecutor’s letter while the commission’s investigation was pending.
“Only later, when he filed his response to the commission’s complaint, did Judge Piontek admit that he initiated the Dec. 3, 2014, phone call and that he made the statements attributed to him,” the document states.
Piontek is also accused of violating the obligation to promote public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judicial system and to act without bias or prejudice.
In the second matter, the complaint states that Piontek presided over the sentencing of a former nurse, who had pleaded guilty to several criminal charges.
The Judicial Commission alleges that Piontek initiated an independent online investigation about the defendant and did not tell the parties in the case until after they made their arguments and statements at the sentencing hearing. The complaint further alleges that the judge used the investigation to determine a sentence.
According to a Supreme Court rule “(a) judge must not independently investigate facts in a case and must consider only the evidence presented.”
The defendant in the matter later filed a post-conviction motion requesting resentencing, which was denied by Piontek. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals later reversed Piontek's judgement of conviction and ordered the defendant to be resentenced.
The Judicial Commission accused Piontek of again engaging in ex parte communications and diminishing public confidence in the judiciary. He was also accused of failing to promote public confidence in the judiciary, similar to in the first case.
“Although Judge Piontek now admits his conduct and credibly disclaims any malicious intent behind his actions, his subsequent statements indicate to us that he fails to appreciate the serious nature of his violations and the impact on the integrity of the judicial system,” the recommendation states.
“I remain vigilant and fearful of ever repeating my mistakes,” Piontek’s letter states. “They will not happen again.”
“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.” — Michael J. Piontek, Racine County Circuit Court judge