Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

Retiring judge recalls tough decisions, cases

by Rob Ireland

August 02, 2012

ELKHORN — “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” Judge Robert Kennedy said quoting the Book of Matthew.

Since 1988, Kennedy, a devout Catholic, has sat on the Walworth County Circuit Court bench handing down judgements. He quoted the Book of Matthew after being asked if his job ever conflicted with the belief that only God can judge.

“I can do this job as long as it doesn’t conflict with the Higher Power,” he said. “So far, I have done that, I hope.”

Now Kennedy will leave making judicial judgements to someone else. He decided not to seek re-election this year and will retire from the bench August 1. He will be replaced by District Attorney Phillip Koss.

During his career he has made countless decisions and sentenced people to life in prison. Some of his decisions have been controversial, and he has faced two recall efforts and other tough elections because of calls he made from the bench.

However, Kennedy said, it hasn’t been the headline-grabbing cases that have been the hardest or most interesting. Divorce proceedings are taxing, he said.

“It hurts me so much to see people who loved each other break apart and fight so much,” he said. “It’s not only people who love each other, but their children who love both of them. When this happens, it is so painful to see it.”

In retirement, Kennedy said he may work in private practice but won’t take on divorce cases because of the toll they take on him and families.

With divorces being the most emotionally-tolling, the most interesting was a medical malpractice case. Kennedy said the case was interesting because of the brilliant attorney work involved.

In that case air entered a tube of premature child, which caused permanent brain damage. The question the jury had to answer was whether the brain damage occurred because of the air entering the tube or if it would have occurred anyway.

A jury ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, who were awarded a $35 million settlement.

Facing scrutiny, hits from media

However, divorce proceedings and medical malpractice cases rarely are the ones that receive media attention or public scrutiny. It was his decisions in criminal proceedings that led to “painful” recall efforts in 1989 and 1995.

In both those incidents, he feels the facts weren’t presented fairly to the public and his side of the story was brushed aside.

Both efforts dealt with cases where Kennedy was criticized for sentences that he handed down. The sentences were considered by some to be too lenient.

“I never thought they looked at these cases very carefully,” Kennedy said of the media. “My opinion was the full story was never given.”

One of the cases involved a sex offender, and today Kennedy is quick to point out that the man hasn’t reoffended.

Kennedy hasn’t had an in-depth interview with a reporter since the second recall experience.

He felt burned after a television reporter asked him to give his side of a story and cut an hour-long interview into a 12-second clip that was taken out of context.

Print media hasn’t always been kind, often devoting about six inches of space to complicated cases and leaving out important pieces of the puzzle, he said.

Other than brief interviews, Kennedy hasn’t been willing to speak to reporters in the past.

He said the reason he agreed to this interview was because it was “more of a human interest piece.”

Another form of criticism that Kennedy gets comes from higher courts. In his career he has had decisions overturned by the appellate and Wisconsin Supreme Court. However, that criticism can be enjoyable.

“There have been some reversals where I applauded the appellate court,” he said.

As an example, he pointed to a recent drunken driving case that he ruled on that was upheld by the appellate court but overturned by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

In that case, a police officer stopped a driver, who didn’t break any traffic laws, but was driving in a way that the officer determined to be suspicious.

When the officer approached the vehicle, he detected that the driver was intoxicated, a fact that wasn’t disputed.

Kennedy threw out evidence related to the traffic stop because he felt the driver wasn’t legally stopped.

He didn’t like making that decision because a drunken driver was getting off on a technicality. However, he felt it was the correct, legal decision.

A tough call

A difficult decisions judges must make is whether to send a person to prison or place them on probation. Kennedy admits this decision often weighs heavily on him.

“I want a productive person who is an asset,” he said. “Putting him in prison might make him an asset, but he may become an asset if he is kept out of prison.”

Oddly enough, Kennedy said some people he has sent to prison have thanked him for his decision. For some, prison became a turning point in their lives

“They are one of us. They are an asset now,” he said.

At sentencing hearings, Kennedy often tries to add a positive spin, offering a ray of hope during tragic situations.

“You can accomplish an incredible amount with some positive reinforcement,” Kennedy said. “It absolutely can help them change, if they are going to change.”

Kennedy admits that he has lost sleep at night when considering tough decisions he had to make. However, he said, it is sometimes in the wee hours of the morning that the best solutions present themselves.

Plans for retirement

In retirement Kennedy said he wants to make sure he has enough time to dedicate to his wife.

“Being a judge cuts down on your family life,” he said.

If the right opportunity arises he may work in the legal field. In retirement, he also wants to become more involved with charity. He already donates time to the Knights of Columbus and Kiwanis Club.

Kennedy attempted to donate his legal services to the state, by volunteering to work for free running the county’s drug court.

However, legally, he can’t donate those services and his offer was rejected, which Kennedy believes hurts the community.

“If there are retired judges or DAs or other public servants that want to offer their services for free, the state should figure out how to make that possible,” he said.

Kennedy is also a history buff, with a particular interest in the Civil War and he plans on visiting historical battlegrounds in retirement.

What Kennedy founds fascinating about the Civil War is not the decisions made by the generals, but the perseverance of the common soldier.

High praise

Kennedy believes Walworth County is well-served by the people who currently run the courts.

He complimented all of the county’s prosecutors, naming each individually.

The Clerks of Courts Office, he said, makes the judges look good because of its level of efficiency.

He also said the public defender’s office is well-served by an attorney, Travis Schwantes, who he described as a “brilliant young man.”

Kennedy said that dedication and camaraderie is what he is going to miss when he retires.