Urbana appellate judge reprimanded over letters seeking speaking gigs

Urbana appellate judge reprimanded over letters seeking speaking gigs

URBANA — When hospitals didn't respond to Appellate Court Justice Robert Steigmann's work emails offering to speak about medical malpractice, he instead sent letters on official judicial letterhead, hoping to increase the response rate and separate his messages from junk mail.

While Steigmann said he did this to confirm his identity as a judge, the Illinois Courts Commission decided Monday that this "impermissibly exploited his judicial position and involved him in frequent transactions with persons whose business was likely to come before the court on which he sits."

The commission decided to give Steigmann a reprimand, the lowest of its penalties ranging from reprimand to censure to suspension to removal from office.

The reprimand is a public acknowledgement that Steigmann violated Illinois' Code of Judicial Conduct.

Beginning in February 2015, he used judicial resources to send 96 letters to hospitals and 30 emails to medical societies for his presentation on medical-malpractice litigation.

He also wrote to law-enforcement organizations advertising his "Legal Tips for Police Officers" presentation.

Over two years, he gave some two dozen presentations that earned him about $32,000 to $34,000.

Appellate court justices in Illinois make $215,856 a year.

Steigmann, who regularly appears on "A Penny for Your Thoughts" on WDWS 1400-AM, admitted to the allegations, but denied his conduct "was for the purpose of private gain, created the appearance of impropriety, suggested that he was not impartial in his decisions, was prejudicial to the administration of justice, or brought the judicial office into disrepute," according to the commission decision.

On Monday, his office referred The News-Gazette to Champaign attorney Marc Ansel, who declined to comment on the reprimand.

The investigation started in August 2016 after a Galesburg physician received a letter from Steigmann on judicial stationery advertising his presentation. The physician asked his lawyer whether the letter was ethical, and the lawyer in turn asked the Judicial Inquiry Board the same thing.

The board investigated and filed its complaint last August, beginning a process that led to Monday's 6-1 decision.

That process was punishment enough, according to Margaret Stanton McBride, a commissioner and appellate judge in Cook County.

She concurred with the decision in part, but disagreed that Steigmann deserved a reprimand.

"There is great public humiliation and shame that naturally occurs as a consequence of this type of proceeding," she wrote. "In having a complaint filed by the board, participating in these proceedings and having his name forever inscribed in the commission reports, respondent has already paid a very public price."

She also cited his "otherwise unblemished and exemplary judicial career."

But the majority agreed Steigmann deserved a reprimand.

"While his motives may have been pure, the fact that the 'public service' he was providing also enriched him financially created the danger that recipients of his solicitation might feel coerced to hire him, or might think that hiring him to give a presentation would cause him to favor their interests in cases that came before him," the commission decided.

Between the direct solicitations and using judicial letterhead and other resources to promote his business, the commission decided that Steigmann's actions "could cause a reasonable observer to question the integrity and independence of the judiciary, creating the appearance of impropriety and partiality."

While the commission concluded the solicitations were improper, they also noted that "there was no evidence of any effect on his performance of his judicial duties or any bias in his decisions."

Steigmann, an appellate court judge for the 30 counties spanning the central part of Illinois, has admitted the solicitations were "unseemly" and "agreed never to seek paid speaking engagements from persons whose business is likely to come before the court on which he sits," according to the commission.

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