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Judge not high court finalist ... for now

June 23, 2016 GMT

Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Randy Koschnick did not make the cut as a finalist for an appointment to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

However, there’s always tomorrow.

The finalists to replace retiring Justice David Prosser are 2nd District Appeals Court Judge Mark Gundrum, 3rd District Appeals Court Judge Thomas Hruz and attorney Dan Kelly. They were picked from a list of five semi-finalists — which also included Koschnick and Marinette County Circuit Judge James Morrison — that was forwarded to Walker by a screening committee.

It marked the third time Koschnick has sought a seat on a higher court bench in his 17 years as a circuit court judge.

“There is nothing wrong with Jefferson County,” he said. “I love being a judge here. I’ve been happy here for the 17 years I’ve been serving.”

However, he also would like to serve on a higher court.

“I think it would be a challenge, a little bit different venue,” Koschnick said. “You make decisions that have statewide affect. It is an opportunity to have a greater impact on the legal system and society.”

He pointed out that as a circuit court judge, he deals with only one case at a time and his decisions generally affect only those parties involved unless they appeal and it results in a published decision through the Court of Appeals.

But opportunities do arise. For instance, should Gundrum be appointed to the Supreme Court, there would be a vacancy in District II of the Court of Appeals.

“I would also consider applying for that seat,” Koschnick said. “I have applied for that before as well, and it would be an opportunity to take a step up to a higher court.”

Hruz is also on the Court of Appeals; however, his District III?is in Wausau. With family in the Waukesha and Jefferson County region, Koschnick said, he would be willing to move within that general area, but not so far north.

Should a Court of Appeals appointment application be unsuccessful or not available, he intends to seek re-election to his current circuit court seat in April 2017.

Koschnick did acknowledge that, were he successful in obtaining an appellate court bench, he would miss engaging with the people, particularly the juries.

Born and raised in Milwaukee, Koschnick graduated from Whitefish Bay High School in 1978, going on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 1982. He received a law degree from Hamline University School of Law in 1985.

Koschnick was elected circuit court judge in Jefferson County in 1999 after having worked 14 years as a public defender in La Crosse and Jefferson counties.

He also had experience as an intern in the homicide- and sexual assault-prosecution unit of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office in Minnesota.

The judge helped create the Jefferson County Victim Impact Panel in 2003. He has served on the board of People Against Domestic and Sexual Abuse in Jefferson County and is a past-president of the Jefferson County Bar Association.

In April 2009, Koschnick unsuccessfully challenged longtime state Supreme Court then-Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

Last year, he was among the applicants for a seat on the Court of Appeals.

He did not apply for the high court seat when Justice Patrick Crooks passed away last year because the appointee would have had to run for his or her own full term the following April and his family was not in position to undertake that challenge at that time.

Justice Rebecca Bradley was appointed to replace Crooks and then won a 10-year term in the spring election.

However, when Prosser announced his retirement, Walker’s appointee will not be up for election to a full 10-year term until 2020.

Having run previously for the high court in 2009, Kosch­nick noted that he always has been interested in a seat on the Supreme Court.

“I consider myself to be a constitutionalist,” the judge said. “I’m a student of the Constitution. Because the Supreme Court decides a lot of constitutional issues on a regular basis, I think I could really use my skills and interest in the constitutional area to do that job.”

As a circuit court judge, Koschnick noted, there are not a lot of constitutional-based decisions to make.

“We follow the Constitution, but are not provided with a lot of questions of what does this law provide or is this law constitutional,” he said.

At the higher court levels, there are more complex cases involving larger issues.

In addition to his deep passion for constitutional law, Koschnick cited his 17 years on the bench and 14 years as an attorney.

“I’ve been practicing or judging in the Wisconsin court system for more than 30 years,” Koschnick said.

The Jefferson County judge also mentioned his administrative background as presiding judge in Jefferson County and chief judge in the Third Judicial District, which includes courts in Jefferson, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties.

He recently was appointed to his third two-year term as chief judge and has been presiding judge in Jefferson County since 2007.

Within that role, he undertakes a lot of administrative work for the district. Koschnick noted that the Supreme Court does a lot of administrative functions over the state’s court system.

“I’m always looking for ways to improve the system, try and make it more efficient and effective as possible,” he said.

While disappointed in his latest effort for a seat on the Supreme Court, Koschnick said he respects the process.

“I think all nine of the people that were originally given interviews were qualified,” Koschnick said. “It’s a good thing that the governor had a large pool of qualified people and he has to pick one. I was happy I made it to the final five.”

The Judicial Selection Advisory Committee went through 11 paper applications, dropping two people on paper review and then interviewing the remaining nine applicants.

Koschnick said that a panel of six attorneys, including Chairman Michael Brennan, a former Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge, interviewed each of the nine to narrow the field to five semifinalists.

Brennan also sits on the three-person panel that does the final round of interviews. The five finalists met the panel Monday for 50-minute interviews.

Koschnick’s daughter, Katie Ignatowski, is Gov. Walker’s chief legal counsel. Normally, the chief legal counsel, deputy chief legal counsel and Brennan make up the three-person panel.

However, due to the potential conflict of the interest with Koschnick being one of the applicants, both she and her deputy counsel recused themselves. The judge noted that his daughter already happened to be home on maternity leave.

In their place were Walker’s chief of staff and attorney, Rich Zipperer, and former deputy legal counsel Andrew Hitt.

“It worked out well when she had to recuse herself from a big issue she was already home with her baby,” Koschnick said.

Koschnick said he sees no issue with her being a part of Walker’s administration.

“She has worked her way up,” the judge said. “I shouldn’t be given any kind of benefit with her working there, but I shouldn’t be treated any less eligible either, as I saw it.”

Koschnick said it was a very vigorous process. Both interviews were heavily based on judicial philosophy.

“They wanted to know how well you understand the Constitution and what your philosophy is,” he said. “Contrary to popular belief, they don’t ask you how you are going to decide cases.”

The judge said the interviews were challenging and it was a well-designed process for selecting a justice.

Looking ahead, he said he would not be running against an incumbent for a seat on the Supreme Court in the next couple of years. Justices Annette Ziegler and Michael Gableman are up for re-election in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Both share his constitutional viewpoints.

However, he acknowledged he has a different philosophy than Justice Abrahamson, whose seat will be up for election in 2019.

While not committing to a rematch, Koschnick did not rule out that he might face Abrahamson in 2019, should she seek a new term. It also could be an open seat for that election if she chooses not to seek re-election.

Depending on the seat, Koschnick said, he would consider running for Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court in the future.

“I want to stay in the court system; I don’t want to run for political office. I’m not a politician,” he said. “I plan on being judge here, a judge on the Court of Appeals or a justice on the Supreme Court until I retire, whenever that is.”