Tags: County Report
January 14, 2014 | 12:07 PMELKHORN — As the Walworth County Family Court Commissioner, Kristine Drettwan doesn't mince words. She believes it is important to speak directly to people who appear before her in court, and that they leave understanding why she made her decision.
"I think people need to hear the truth as far as court proceedings are concerned," Drettwan said.
Her judicial temperament has earned her respect from her peers, and it most recently earned her the respect of Gov. Scott Walker, who appointed her on Jan. 3 as the new Walworth County Circuit Court Judge. Drettwan replaces Judge John Race, who retired after 29 years.
Drettwan's appointment has a special place in Walworth County history: she is the first woman ever to serve on the bench. Although Drettwan is proud of the accolade, she is downplaying it. She believes she was appointed because of her merits, not her gender.
Drettwan was hired as an assistant district attorney by then-District Attorney Phillip Koss. She had previously worked in Douglas County.
"She was always a very good litigator. She was certainly very courageous," Koss, who is now a judge, said. "She was not afraid to take a stand and do what she thought was right. Her presence with the jury was always very good. We would send out questionnaires and she always got very good remarks from her jurors."
In 2000, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration gave her an award for "Outstanding Contributions in the Field of Drug Law Enforcement."
"She was a good team player as well. She worked closely with the police and closely with victim witness," Koss said.
In 2003, Drettwan left the District Attorney's Office to raise her family. She wanted to continue to work part-time, but that wasn't an option. After she left the DA's office, the four Walworth County judges asked Drettwan to become their legal assistant. In that position, Drettwan wrote decisions for the judges.
In 2005, she became a part-time family court commissioner, and served as a backup for David Reddy.
"She definitely already has earned the respect of the bar and I'm sure she will continue that in her new position," Reddy said.
Reddy was elected to the bench in 2010, and the four elected judges — Reddy, Race, James Carlson and Robert Kennedy — appointed Drettwan as the full-time family court commissioner.
"I believe that she is very knowledgeable and a person of great integrity," Reddy said. "I think she has great judicial demeanor and she will surely carry that over from the family court commissioner office up to the bench."
As an attorney, Drettwan said she was an advocate for one side of an argument. On the bench, she must remain unbiased and pull away from the "adversary role." She said developing that skill has prepared her for the bench.
Both Koss and Reddy speak highly of the new judge and are happy she will be on the bench.
"I think she is wonderful. It sounds like a weird thing to say, especially about lawyers, but she is just a regular person. She has had real-life experiences. She can identify with people," Koss said. "She tries very, very hard to do the right thing. I think that is what drew her to public service and prosecution. I just have no doubt she is going to do a wonderful job."
Koss said judges "can't practice in an ivory tower." As a judge, Koss said, it is important to understand how life's hardships may lead to trials and tribulations.
"You have to apply the law, but you also have to use common sense to apply it to the particular facts that are presented to you," he said.
He said Drettwan is a parent and someone who has had real-world experiences.
Reddy agreed and said, "she is very approachable."
In a 20-minute interview with a reporter, Drettwan was personable and didn't dance around questions. She didn't appear guarded, nor did she answer questions with legal jargon.
Before the interview, she helped two people who spoke limited English find the right room for their court appearance. When she was being interviewed, a local attorney stopped by Drettwan's courtroom to get guidance on a pet problem.
It turns out that the attorney's wife is friends with Drettwan, and the two swapped stories about animals on the sidelines of their kids' sporting events.
Drettwan is an animal lover, and she sat on the board of Lakeland Animal Shelter for several years. Her family owns three rescue dogs.
Ready for the bench
It was expected in the local legal community that Race wouldn't seek another term on the bench.If he hadn't, Drettwan was mulling over running for the office.
When Race resigned, she went for the appointment.
She said the appointment process wasn't easy.
She filled out long and complicated applications and was interviewed by the governor's judicial board.
"It was tough a interview," Drettwan said. "As it should be."
Finally she was interviewed by Walker.
She said she is ready for the possibility of a contested election next year and knew that if she went for the appointment she was in it "hook, line and sinker."
Family Court Commissioner
Drettwan said attorney Thomas Meyer, who has served as a court commissioner in the past, will serve until a full-time replacement is found.
The four judges — Reddy, Drettwan, Koss and James Carlson — will select the next court commissioner.
Drettwan will be sworn in during a public ceremony Jan. 30 at 3 p.m. in Carlson's courtroom. At 45, Drettwan is young enough to possibly pursue higher court appointments or elections. However, at this time, she said that isn't in her plans.
"I'm exactly in the right place, professionally and personally," she said.