“Misguided and serious” ex parte communications and independent investigations

Based on the recommendation of a judicial conduct panel, the Wisconsin Supreme Court suspended a judge for 5 days without pay for (1) initiating an ex parte communication with a prosecutor about plea negotiations in 1 case and (2) using the internet to independently investigate a defendant prior to sentencing in a second case.  Judicial Commission v. Piontek, Opinion (Wisconsin Supreme Court May 21, 2019).  The judge had admitted the allegations in the complaint filed by the Judicial Commission.

(1) The judge set a criminal case against S.S. for trial on March 4, 2015.  Sometime before December 3, 2014, the prosecutor visited the judge in his chambers seeking an adjournment of the trial.  On December 3, the judge telephoned the prosecutor, without including defense counsel or giving defense counsel notice.  During the 3-minute-and-7-second phone call, the judge told the prosecutor that he wanted S.S.’s trial to go forward on the scheduled trial date; that any plea negotiation should include S.S. being convicted of a felony; and that people like S.S. involved “in scams like this” need to be stopped.  The judge never disclosed this conversation to S.S. or S.S.’s attorney.

In a letter to defense counsel on January 29, the prosecutor summarized his phone call with the judge.  Shortly thereafter, the prosecutor gave the judge a copy of the letter.  Only after receiving the prosecutor’s letter did the judge recuse himself from the case.

During the Commission’s investigation, the judge at least twice denied the assertions made in the prosecutor’s letter.  In a response letter, the judge denied that he initiated the phone call to the prosecutor and denied making the statements the prosecutor attributed to him.  In response to the notice of formal proceedings, the judge denied that his ex parte conversation with the prosecutor involved discussions of plea negotiations.  Only later, when he filed his response to the complaint, did the judge admit that he initiated the phone call and that he made “off-handed comments about the manner in which he believed the case should be resolved.”

(2) In June 2014, P.E., a former nurse, pled guilty before another judicial official to 3 counts of delivery of non-narcotic controlled substances.  A pre-sentence investigation was ordered, and the matter was scheduled for sentencing before Judge Piontek on October 6, 2014.

Because he believed that P.E. was untruthful in her comments to the presentence investigation writer, the judge independently investigated on the internet P.E.’s nursing licenses and related matters in several states.  From that research, the judge incorrectly deduced that P.E. had never been licensed as a nurse in Illinois.  The judge did not provide the parties or their attorneys with notice of his intent to conduct the investigation, the nature of his investigation, or its results.

When sentencing P.E., the judge relied on the incorrect information he had obtained from the internet regarding P.E.’s Illinois nursing license.  When P.E. attempted to provide information about her Illinois license, the judge told her that her “lies are getting [her] in trouble,” suggested that she “close [her] mouth,” stated that her “license in the State of Illinois does not exist,” and said that he did not want any further comment from her.

Reversing the judge’s order denying resentencing, the court of appeals concluded that the record was inconsistent with the judge’s assertion that he did not rely on the misinformation from his independent investigation and, therefore, that the judge had denied P.E. her right to be sentenced based on accurate information.  The court remanded for resentencing before a different judge.

In his brief to the panel, the judge stated that “long before his formal appearance before the Judicial Commission, [he had] ceased conducting any independent factual research in cases before him.”  Based on that statement, the panel found that the judge had “implicitly conceded” that his independent factual investigation in the P.E. case was not isolated.

The Court concluded that a suspension was appropriate, rather than a reprimand as requested by the judge.  At the time of his misconduct, he had been a judge for 2 years.  The Court explained:

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.  In addition, Judge Piontek’s independent investigation concerning P.E.’s nursing licenses plainly violated his duty of neutrality; it is clearly improper for a judge to both conduct an independent investigation and to fail to give a party a chance to respond to the judge’s misinformed allegations based on that investigation.

The Court also noted its concern that the judge’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.  Simply put, this was not a close case under the undisputed facts, and a reprimand, as Judge Piontek requests, would be an insufficient response.”

The Court concluded that a suspension at the low end of the 5-15 day range recommended by the panel was warranted, “acknowledging that the imposition of discipline is not an exact science” but finding that the judge’s conduct, “while misguided and serious” was not as egregious as conduct that had resulted in 15-day suspensions in previous cases.

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