Journal Times editorial: Another bad choice for Judge Piontek
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Journal Times editorial: Another bad choice for Judge Piontek

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Dismaying and disturbing are about the only words we can think of after reading the news reports that Racine County Circuit Court Judge Michael Piontek is facing criminal charges in Ashland County for an alleged game law violation at his northwoods cabin.

Piontek, 70, was charged April 24 as party to the crime of illegally shining a deer, a charge which carries a maximum fine of between $1,000 and $2,000 and/or up to six months in jail and possible revocation of his hunting license for three years.

According to the news reports, the charges stem from a shooting incident on Nov. 16, 2019, after a state Department of Natural Resources warden was asked to watch Piontek’s cabin due to an ongoing investigation regarding the alleged hunting of deer during closed season with the aid of artificial light.

The warden reportedly saw what he believed to be an illegal floodlight mounted on the west side of the cabin. About 7:30 p.m., a six-point buck walked out of the woods near the cabin and moments later the warden heard a rifle shot coming from inside. The deer was hit, but ran off into a field. Shooting hours that day ended at 4:30 p.m.

According to the news reports, the warden then saw Piontek and John Tussler, 58, of Kenosha, leave the cabin with a flashlight and begin searching for the deer. The warden approached the two men and during questioning Tusler admitted shooting the deer from inside the cabin using Piontek’s rifle.

Piontek was charged with being party to illegal shining of a deer, and, in addition, party to hunting a deer after shooting hours and unauthorized use of illegal bait. The warden reported there were 21 gallons of deer bait — corn, carrots, apples and other things around the cabin — in excess of the 2 gallon limit of bait that is allowed.

Piontek’s attorney, Patrick Cafferty, said that the illumination device at the cabin was a standard porchlight and that Piontek was charged under a “party to” theory because he is the owner of the property. He predicted the “matter will be resolved quickly and without criminal conviction.”

Perhaps. We’ll be watching closely to see what happens.

Judge Piontek will get his day in court, although this time he will not be presiding over it. What is bothersome about this is that we expect our judges to uphold the law, not to violate it — or even come close.

We expect judges to use good judgment in and out of court.

This was not the only time that Piontek has been accused of flouting game laws. He was also recently cited for a 2018 incident after he brought a deer to a butcher shop that showed evidence of being shot with a gun during archery-only season, according to news reports.

And less than a year ago, Piontek was given a five-day suspension by the Wisconsin Supreme Court for his conduct in two criminal cases in 2014. The suspension came after an investigation by a three-judge Judicial Conduct Panel into allegations that he had ex parte communication with a prosecutor from his chambers — without notifying defense counsel — and urged that any plea deal being contemplated should include a felony conviction. After it came to light, Piontek recused himself.

In the second case, involving the sentencing of a nurse for delivery of a controlled substance, Piontek didn’t believe the defendant had been truthful with a Department of Corrections official who compiled a pre-sentence report. So the judge went online and researched the nurse’s licensing history without telling either the prosecutor or defense attorney until they had each finished their presentations at sentencing. Judges are not allowed to conduct independent investigations. According to news reports, Piontek’s research was faulty and incorrectly concluded she had not been licensed in Illinois. Piontek denied the nurse’s motion for resentencing, but the Court of Appeals disagreed and ordered the nurse re-sentenced by a different judge.

After review of those cases last May, the state Supreme Court said, “The misconduct in this case is concerning. Regardless of his newness to the bench or the weight of his caseload, Judge Piontek’s ex parte communication with the prosecutor on the merits of a criminal case was obviously unethical; even the newest and busiest judge must know as much.

“We also share the Judicial Conduct Panel’s concern that Judge Piontek’s initial denials and later defenses of his conduct suggest that, for much of these proceedings, he failed to fully appreciate the seriousness of his misconduct and its impact on the judicial system.”

Last year, after the judicial panel gave its report calling for a suspension, Judge Piontek issued a statement saying, “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. I deserve the public humiliation of me and my career resulting from front-page newspaper articles in my community.”

And, yet, he’s back on the front pages again this month — this time for allegedly violating state game laws. Judge Piontek’s track record suggests he’s a recidivist when it comes to bad judgment in instances on and off the bench. He might want to reconsider serving the four years until the end of his term.

Judge Piontek’s track record suggests he’s a recidivist when it comes to bad judgment in instances on and off the bench.

Judge Piontek’s track record suggests he’s a recidivist when it comes to bad judgment in instances on and off the bench.

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