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Respect follows Koss to new position on bench

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Stan Milam
August 9, 2012

— On his last day as district attorney, Phil Koss was doing what he did every day for 27 years—sitting in a courtroom prosecuting crimes.

Koss arrived at the Walworth County District Attorney's Office in 1985 as an assistant district attorney. He was unopposed when he ran for election as DA in 1990 and ran unopposed for every election after.

He was unopposed, too, when he decided to give up the DA's post to run in April for Walworth County judge.

His last day as district attorney was July 31. He's now learning the ropes for a new job without any thoughts of another election.

"There will be an obvious change in what I do in terms of balancing the interests of the state and the interests of the defendant," Koss said. "But in many ways, the jobs of a prosecutor and a judge are similar. We all have a duty to see that justice is served."

Koss said he understands there's a learning curve involved in his new role in he courtroom.

"I've been attending judicial training sessions, and I'll be shadowing judges for a few weeks to get a first-hand look at how things operate," Koss said. "But I have no doubts that I'll be able to be a good judge."

Koss' confidence comes from what he says are shared skills.

"The one thing you do a lot of as a district attorney is to look at the facts of a case, study them and use them to make a decision," he said. "That's also what judges do, and I think I'm pretty good at that."

Koss enjoys universal respect from the Walworth County legal community, even from the person who most often opposed him in court.

"I've only known him since January, but I will miss not only his knowledge and expertise but also his willingness to be open and transparent with all members of the bar, including criminal defense attorneys," said Travis Schwantes, the attorney manager for the Wisconsin Public Defender's Office in Walworth County.

"He is always fair and open in his decisions, something I can't say about all prosecutors I've known," Schwantes said.

"He will take the time to sit down with you and explain why he has decided to proceed the way he has and listen to you arguments," Schwantes said. "He doesn't always agree with me, and I often don't agree with him, but I always walk away knowing he considered my arguments with care and respect."

Walworth County Sheriff David Graves said his department will miss Koss' presence.

"Phil is the quintessential prosecutor," Graves said. "We are not only law enforcement partners, we are personal friends. I can't tell you the number of times he's with me and the deputies in the field examining evidence, for example.

"Phil has served this county well as a district attorney, and I know he'll continue to serve the county well as a judge," Graves said.

Koss leaves behind a legacy of fighting for abused children.

"It's true that you see more prosecution of child abuse cases here than you may see in other counties," Koss said. "It's a priority we have, here. Children who are sexually and otherwise physically abused are innocent victims with no way to protect themselves. That's a duty we have as prosecutors."

Koss leaves behind thousands of successful prosecutions, but one stands out for its shocking facts and circumstances.

"We received word that young boys were brought into Walworth County from the Chicago area and sexually abused," Koss said. "The shocking part was that these crimes were committed by a Jesuit from Loyola Academy, Donald McGuire, a highly respected religious leader who was Mother Teresa's confessor."

McGuire was accused of sexually assaulting boys in the 1960s, but the statute of limitations in Illinois had run out. That was not the case in Wisconsin, and when Koss learned that McGuire had brought boys to Wisconsin on vacations where sexual assaults took place, he filed charges.

"We received absolutely no cooperation from the Loyola Jesuits," Koss said. "As a matter of fact, they had people standing outside my office in an obvious attempt to intimidate us."

Anyone who knows Koss would say, "good luck with that."

Koss led the prosecution resulting in McGuire's conviction on five counts of sexual assault of a minor in February 2006.

"It was probably the most stressful case I ever prosecuted," Koss said. "There was a lot of public support for him, and Loyola was stonewalling us at every turn."

The Wisconsin conviction led to federal charges. McGuire is now serving a 25-year federal prison sentence.

Koss has received publicity in a much lighter vein. During a criminal jury trial, a defendant claimed he had ammunition to ward off the infamous Beast of Bray Road, a local Walworth County tale of upright wolves and Bigfoot sightings.

"I made the Tonight Show with Jay Leno," Koss said. "By the way, I also got the conviction."

Future criminals won't have to worry about appearing before Koss for a few years. He starts his duties as the family court judge for a year, will serve two years in civil court, the next two years hearing misdemeanor cases and two years later he will move on to criminal court.

Koss said he has only one regret: leaving a staff he considers the best.

"It's tough to leave them," he said. "We've all worked together for many years to establish a well-run office. That includes the assistants and the incredibly hard working staff we have. We all have a common goal, and as I leave, I believe we can all celebrate what we have accomplished."

Kennedy leaves bench to travel, enjoy family

At age 68, Robert J. Kennedy showed no signs of slowing in his duties as a Walworth County judge.

It wasn't unusual to see him working weekends.

So why did he not seek re-election in April after 24 years on the bench?

"My family wanted more of my time," Kennedy said. "Also, we want to travel, and I want to do more charity work. It was simply not possible to do all that and do the job I felt had to be done as a judge."

Kennedy, a Civil War historian, wants to travel the South to visit battlefields. He's also planning a trip to Ireland.

"We think we may find traces of our ancestors in County Cork or possibly County Killkenny," Kennedy said. "There also is a chance we came from Scotland, but our best guess is Ireland."

When he's not traveling, Kennedy plans to work for organizations helping children with disabilities, the local library, the Kiwanis Club, Hope Now, the Knights of Columbus and St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Elkhorn.

"I'm told if I try to keep up that schedule, I'll be working harder than I did as a judge," Kennedy said. "That may be true, but I loved being a judge, and I'll love traveling, spending time with my family and volunteering."

When asked to recall his proudest moment as a judge, Kennedy deferred to the courthouse staff.

"My proudest moment didn't involve anything I did," he said. "I just can't tell you how proud I am of the clerk of court's staff and Sheila Reiff, the clerk of courts.

"They are just a fantastic group of people, and they all work together so well."

Kennedy said he has no doubts that his replacement, former district attorney Phil Koss, will be a good judge.

"I always thought I was a good district attorney," Kennedy said. "But Phil was far and away a better DA than me, and he'll be an equally great judge."



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