ELKHORN — Judge Philip Koss said he wouldn’t have been ready to take the bench 10 years ago. He isn’t even sure if he could have done the job three years ago.
It isn’t the workload or the responsibility that Koss said he couldn’t have handled, but instead he said he would have struggled with the slower pace of sitting on the bench.
Koss, who served as the Walworth County District Attorney for more than 20 years, said he also would have missed litigating cases.
On Aug. 9, Koss sat down with a Regional News reporter to discuss his first year as judge. In 2012, before taking the bench, Koss also sat down with the Regional News to discuss his career as district attorney.
When preparing to exit his second-floor office to move up to the third floor, Koss said he thought he would miss prosecuting cases when the first big crime occurred in Walworth County.
On Aug. 9, Koss said he remembers making that comment, but when the last big case broke, he didn’t feel as if he was missing out.
“I thought it would be difficult not to try cases,” he said. “You define yourself as a Wyatt Earp, a gunslinger.”
During his last jury trial as a prosecutor, a sexual assault case involving young children, Koss said he felt a sense of relief when the young victim finished testifying.
“It was a heavy burden that is no longer hanging on me,” he said.
Isn’t there a lot of pressure for judges to make correct rulings? After all, no judge wants to have a ruling overturned by an appeals court.
“That was always around in some ways,” he said. “What tactics are used and what evidence is presented.”
However, as a judge, Koss has never had a decision overturned by an appeals court. After that occurs, maybe that feeling will change.
On the bench
Koss has years of experience in criminal prosecution, and when he took the bench he was immediately put in charge of family court.
He said he took a family law seminar and mentored with other judges. Judge David Reddy, who oversaw the family court before Koss, and Family Court Commissioner Kristen Drettwan, who worked for Koss as an assistant district attorney, also have helped him.
“There is a steep learning curve,” Koss said. “A lot of the decisions are based on judging credibility.”
In family court, the stakes may not be as high for society as they are in criminal court, but they are every bit as high for those involved.
In criminal court, during sentencing hearings, defendants often paint themselves as good people, who made a single mistake.
“In family court, it is good people at their worst,” Koss said. “Criminal court is bad people at their best.”
In the family court system Koss has heard a lot of cases, in which the judge decides the case based on the evidence.
He also had one jury trial.
“I can’t image trying to run a jury trial if I never had one,” he said.
As a prosecutor, Koss would question decisions judges made, especially when those rulings adversely affected his cases.
Now, as a judge, Koss said his understanding of those decisions hasn’t changed.
“Judges are as good as the information that is presented by the attorneys,” Koss said. “Some of the decisions I wasn’t happy about, maybe I didn’t give the judge enough information.”
He also is now ruling on cases that are being argued by assistant district attorneys he hired and worked closely with.
“I think they have handled it well when I’ve ruled against them,” he said.
As district attorney, Koss supervised a staff of 16, and he regularly fielded phone calls from police, victims, the media and attorneys.
By design, judges interact with all of these groups less frequently.
“This is more isolated, the pace is slower,” Koss said.
As DA, Koss was responsible for creating a budget and administrating an office.
“I miss everyone. I don’t miss supervising 16 people,” he said.
As a judge, Koss is more dependent on other people.
“Your time is not your own,” he said.
Judges wait and watch as attorneys present evidence.
“Judges get in trouble when they have preconceived ideas on where a case should go,” Koss said. “I try to be quiet and listen. Everybody who comes into the court system needs to be treated with respect.”
Last career stop
Short of the president calling him and asking him to serve on the Supreme Court, Koss said it isn’t likely that he will serve on another bench.
In Wisconsin, there are two higher courts, the appeals court and the state Supreme Court, which are both elected positions. Neither appeal to Koss.
“There is no contact at all with people there,” he said.
Appeals court judges review documents, transcripts and motions. They then issue written opinions on the cases.
“It’s like writing a term paper every week,” Koss said. “I enjoy being right here, living in the community.”