Appeal from the Municipal Court of Chicago, First Municipal
District of the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. JOSEPH M.
WOSIK, Judge, presiding. Judgment reversed and cause remanded
MR. JUSTICE SCHWARTZ DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT.
Rehearing denied April 29, 1965.
Josephine Roherty was the holder of three judgment notes, two of which had been executed by Martin W. Green, and one by both Martin Green and his then wife, Rita Green. Josephine Roherty is Rita Green's mother and Martin Green's former mother-in-law. The notes were given for three loans to her son-in-law totaling $2,500, as evidenced by three checks, one dated May 29, 1946 for $1,000, one dated November 29, 1946 for $1,000, and one dated June 8, 1950 for $500. The notes were not paid when due, and the defendant executed renewal notes, being those notes here involved. On November 30 and December 1, 1960, judgments in the full face amount of each of said notes, together with interest from the date of making to the date of judgments and attorneys' fees were confessed and entered in favor of the plaintiff.
On January 4, 1961, upon the motion of Martin Green, each of the judgments was opened. The affidavit of merits filed in support of the motion to open the judgments alleged in substance that the original note for $500 was paid by the execution of a renewal note for $1,000, which incorporated an additional $500 loan; that upon maturity, the note for $1,000 was paid by the issuance of a renewal note in the same amount, and that the final admitted indebtedness of $1,000 was paid. These allegations were inconsistent with an additional defense filed June 16, 1961, in which the defendant averred that the indebtedness of $2,500 had been discharged by an oral agreement between the plaintiff on the one hand and the defendant and his then wife on the other, that the defendant would make monthly payments to the plaintiff's landlord in payment of her rent. Those allegations were also in conflict with the defendant's testimony at the trial.
The defendant filed a cross-complaint and third party complaints and later an amended cross and amended third party complaints against Rita Green, a cosigner of one of the notes. He alleged in substance that Rita had been given funds, as his agent, to make payments to Mrs. Roherty, and that in the event Martin was liable to the plaintiff, Rita was liable for breach of a fiduciary duty to make such payments. Defendant also filed a counterclaim against plaintiff, alleging overpayment.
Issue having been joined on these pleadings, the cause was tried without a jury. The trial commenced, after a pretrial hearing, at 3:30 p.m., December 6, 1963, and ended at 1:07 a.m., December 7, 1963. Between the pretrial hearing and commencement of the trial, petitions for change of venue were filed and denied. At the conclusion of defendant's evidence, judgment was entered confirming each of the previous judgments and denying the cross complaint, third party complaints and counterclaim. This appeal is taken by Martin Green from all these orders, except the denial of the counterclaim.
The principal issues raised on appeal are whether defendant's petition for change of venue was properly denied; whether the trial court's determination that the payments made to Mrs. Roherty were gifts and not in repayment of the loans was against the manifest weight of the evidence; whether there was prejudicial error in limiting defendant's direct and cross-examination of certain witnesses; and whether defendant was prejudiced by the trial court's conduct in remaining in continuous session from 3:30 in the afternoon of December 6, until 1:07 in the morning on December 7, 1963.
We will consider defendant's contention that it was error for the court to deny his petition for a change of venue. The three judgments obtained by confession were opened on January 4, 1961. On December 6, 1963, they were called for trial and all parties answered ready. Thereafter the court concluded its preliminary call of the calendar and took all the counsel, but not the court reporter, into chambers to discuss the instant case. They discussed for about three hours the facts, pleadings and issues and the prospect of settlement. During the discussion a question was raised as to defendant's affidavit of merits filed at the time the judgments were opened. The court apparently indicated there was a serious question of defendant's perjury with respect to the affidavits and that he would rule for the plaintiff unless convincing evidence was produced. The court then made a recommendation concerning settlement, which plaintiff and Rita Green accepted. Martin Green's counsel indicated she wanted to discuss the matter with her client during the noon hour, and court adjourned until 2:30 p.m. At 2:30 the court was conducting hearings on motions which concluded at 3:30 p.m., at which time counsel for the parties were requested to come into chambers. It was at that time that counsel presented petitions for change of venue in all three cases, alleging the prejudice of the trial judge and stating that the prejudice first came to Martin Green's knowledge that day, December 6, 1963. During the course of an extended colloquy, the court denied defendant's motion for a change of venue.
[1-6] It has been held that the right to a change of venue on account of prejudice of the trial court is absolute if the requirements of the statute are met. Simpson v. Simpson, 165 Ill. App. 515; Gates v. Gates, 38 Ill. App.2d 446, 187 N.E.2d 460. It has been reiterated that the courts in construing the venue provisions should give them a liberal, rather than a strict, construction and that the statute should be construed to promote rather than defeat the right to a change of venue, particularly where prejudice on the part of the trial judge is charged. People v. Chambers, 9 Ill.2d 83, 136 N.E.2d 812; People v. McWilliams, 350 Ill. 628, 183 N.E. 582; People v. Dieckman, 404 Ill. 161, 88 N.E.2d 433. The petition must be offered at the earliest practical moment and if filed after a hearing has commenced on the merits of the case, it will be denied on the ground that it was filed too late. Miller v. Miller, 43 Ill. App.2d 214, 193 N.E.2d 105. This requirement that a petition for change of venue be filed at the earliest practical moment is designed to preclude counsel from first ascertaining the attitude of the trial judge on a hearing relating to some of the issues of the case and then, if the court's judgment should not be in harmony with counsel's theory, asserting the prejudice of the court as ground for allowing a change of venue. People v. Chambers, supra; Commissioner of Drainage Dist. v. Goembel, 383 Ill. 323, 50 N.E.2d 444; In re Wheeling Drainage Dist. No. 1, 282 Ill. App. 565.
What constitutes "the earliest practical moment" is the controlling issue here. In People v. Chambers, supra, the defendant, who was indicted for grand larceny, made a motion to suppress certain evidence alleged to have been illegally seized. After the court had denied his motion, he moved for a change of venue on the ground of prejudice on the part of the trial judge. The Supreme Court, in affirming the trial court's denial of the motion for change of venue, reviewed many of the Illinois cases and concluded that "the criterion for timeliness of a motion for a change of venue is not the impaneling of a jury at the commencement of a trial, but rather whether the court has considered a substantive issue in the case."
Defendant argues that no substantive issue in the case before us had been passed upon at the time the petition for a change of venue was denied. He argues that the trial court discussed the pleadings and the evidence for about three hours on the morning of the trial; that the real purpose of the conference was to see if a settlement could be effected; that the court reporter was not included among the persons present; and that the court itself agreed that the morning conference was a discussion between lawyers, not a proceeding in which the court was acting in its judicial capacity.
When the parties answered ready on the morning of December 6, 1963, they were ready to go to trial. Witnesses both for the plaintiff and the defendant were present. Martin Green was present and was represented, as it developed, by no less than four attorneys who appeared at various stages of the proceeding. Both the plaintiff and Rita Green were represented by counsel. The court in a commendable effort to clarify the issues and pleadings and perhaps bring about settlement of a bitter family squabble precipitated by a recent divorce (Rita and Martin Green were separated in September 1959 and divorced in February 1960), took the parties into chambers for a pretrial conference, as hereinbefore stated. In the course of that conference the court referred to the affidavit of merits filed by Martin Green on January 4, 1961 and to his later additional answer, which were clearly in conflict with each other. Following the conference there was the noon recess and upon return to court in the afternoon, the petition for change of venue was filed.
The misuse in this jurisdiction of the right to a change of venue is well known. Howarth v. Howarth, 47 Ill. App.2d 177, 197 N.E.2d 736. Pretrial conferences are an established and important part of court proceedings in this county. Without such procedure, the disposal of litigation would be delayed beyond its present deplorable state. The pretrial conference includes the discussion of disposition by settlement, as well as an effort to reduce the issues. It cannot be conducted effectively by the judge's assuming the attitude of a sitting Buddha. On the other hand, the judge cannot commit himself, but must await the hearing of evidence and the arguments of counsel. In the instant case the court gave a quite conclusive indication of his strong feeling on the conflict between the defendant's affidavit of merits and his additional answer.
In Steiner v. Steiner, 44 Ill. App.2d 355, 194 N.E.2d 508, (Abst Opinion), the plaintiff had filed a complaint for divorce charging cruelty; the defendant had counterclaimed charging adultery; and the plaintiff in reply had also amended her complaint to allege adultery. Proceedings before the trial judge on September 28, 1962, resulted in the withdrawal of the plaintiff's allegations of adultery. During the course of the proceedings, the judge learned that there was a child involved and thereupon held a conference with the parties in chambers and off the record. At that time, he set the case for trial for October 2, 1962. On October 2nd, an affidavit for change of venue was filed at the time the case was called for trial, in which it was stated that during the conference of September 28th, the judge had said he was opposed to allegations of adultery against women who had children and that he would not decide the case if the defendant ...