MICHAEL J. CHMIEL was appointed to a circuit court post in 2004 and then, two years later, won election when McHenry County was shifted into a newly-created 22nd Illinois district. In February, 2008, the Judicial Inquiry Board filed a complaint against Chmiel, based on his actions in holding an emergency bond hearing for the brother of a political ally, after a series of private conversations. In November, 2010, the courts commission reprimanded Chmiel over those conversations.
What the judge did: On a Saturday in June, 2007, Chmiel received a message from a local Republican party official, Robert Miller, whose brother had been arrested on a felony charge of obstructing justice, charges that involved allegations that he had dumped materials from an overweight truck after an officer directed him to a weigh station. Miller’s daughter, an attorney, wanted Chmiel to hold an emergency bond hearing, so that her uncle could be released without spending the next day, Father’s Day, in jail. Chmiel had never held an emergency bond hearing, and he was not the judge assigned to bond court that day. He presided over an emergency hearing that afternoon, and, with the approval of the State’s Attorney, granted the release of Miller’s brother’s on $10,000 bone.
What the Judicial Inquiry Board said: In February, 2008, the board charged Chmiel with three different violations of the Judicial Code: charging him with bringing the judiciary into disrepute by creating the appearance of an impropriety, and even creating an impropriety itself, when he held the rare emergency bond hearing for the brother of a politically-active associate. The board charged that Chmiel was improperly involved in ex parte communications with Miller and his daughter about the case, producing evidence of a series of telephone calls between the cell phones of Miller, his daughter, and Chmiel before the hearing occurred. And the board charged that Chmiel testified falsely in his testimony before the board, downplaying the role of Miller in those events, as well as contending that by the time of the incident he and Miller were not even close.
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What the Illinois Courts Commission decided: In November, 2010, the commission issued a reprimand against Chmiel. The commission ruled that Chmiel had created the appearance of an impropriety – that he took action on behalf of a politically-connected person that he would not have done for others – but ruled that the Judicial Inquiry Board had failed to prove it was actually improper for Chmiel to have held the hearing, since he was legally empowered to take the actions he took. The commission ruled that while Chmiel engaged in ex parte communications with a party about a case, the Judicial Inquiry Board failed to prove that the communications involved any conversations regarding the substance of the case. The commission wrote that Chmiel “permitted and participated in a series of phone calls with the brother of a defendant charged with a Class 4 felony who was requesting that [Chmiel] preside over a specially-scheduled hearing…” but said that was not the end of the issue: The $10,000 bond was appropriate, and “no party gained a procedural or tactical advantage” from the ex parte communication. And the commission concluded that the board had failed to convincingly prove that what Chmiel told the board about his conversations, and his relationship to Miller, was false and misleading.