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People v. Knuppel





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Mason County; the Hon. GUY R. WILLIAMS, Judge, presiding.


On January 31, 1978, Judge Guy R. Williams entered an order nunc pro tunc finding the respondent, John L. Knuppel, an attorney, to have been in direct contempt of court. At that time, the respondent was fined $500. Subsequently, on February 14, the fine was reduced to $250; all other motions to vacate and set aside the finding of contempt were denied; the respondent appeals. We conclude from this record that the respondent's conduct did not constitute contempt and the judgment and fine are reversed.

The background information is as follows: There was a certain proceeding pending in the circuit court of Mason County entitled "In the Interest of [three named minor children]." In 1975, in proceedings before another judge, the three children had been adjudged to be neglected. The two older children were permitted to reside with their mother subject to visitation and supervision by the county probation officer. The youngest child, then aged two years, was placed under the guardianship of the probation officer with directions to place the child in a suitable home until further order of the court. In September 1977, the probation officer filed a supplemental petition as to each of the children, requesting the appointment of a guardian for each with power to consent to adoption. Judge Williams was the assigned judge in the matter from and after October 13, 1977.

From the date of the supplemental petition until January 1978, there was no substantive activity in the case, no evidence was heard, and the only entries were continuances on a motion to quash a subpoena.

Against that background the matter came on for hearing on the supplemental petition on January 30, 1978, at which time the State's Attorney moved to dismiss the supplemental petition stating to the presiding judge that the parties had reached an agreement by the terms of which the petitions would be dismissed. The two older children were to remain as wards of the court under the guardianship of the Department of Children and Family Services, the youngest child would be under the permanent guardianship of the probation officer, and the matter would be continued generally under the court's supervision and review as might be necessary. If adoption should later be a matter to be considered, the power to consent to adoption would be the subject of further proceedings and a subsequent petition. Upon being advised of this agreement, the trial judge stated:

"If that is the agreement, I don't like to do it to be frank. I don't like to do that to [the youngest child] from what I understand about the situation in the past."

Following this statement, there was also a short colloquy between the judge, the guardian ad litem, the State's Attorney, and respondent, concerning the proposed agreement. The judge then made this statement:

"The Court has to approve that. I will not abandon that petition. I will not do it on my knowledge of this situation. I will hold it in limbo and I won't take any action in it."

The following then took place between the judge and respondent:

"[RESPONDENT]: Well let me say this Your Honor, as an officer of the court, that there has been no evidence presented here, that I feel if the Court has personal knowledge right at this point, the court should disqualify himself if he can't approve the agreement dealing in at armed [sic] length and I think the record shows here we have considered the thing thoroughly, that we are mature men, we are officers of the court and that we have reached an agreement and an understanding. If the court has specialized knowledge with respect then he should disqualified [sic] himself. He has heard no evidence.

[JUDGE]: I am sorry, but I think I have heard quite a bit. This matter has been in here for quite some time and the probation officer has talked to me. So has the State's Attorney, and I do not — I have not been asked to step down in this case and that is going to be my judgment.

[RESPONDENT]: Well Your Honor you are being asked because you have said now that you considered conversations with the state's attorney and the guardian as evidence.

[JUDGE]: And I am not going to step down at this time."

The judge then questioned the probation officer as to her desires in the matter and about conversations with him outside the courtroom. Respondent objected. The objections may also be characterized as interruptions by respondent as the judge was questioning the ...

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