Long-time Oneida County judges reflect on sitting behind the bench
Two retired pillars of the community were celebrated this past week—judges Robert Kinney and Mark Mangerson, who together presided over Oneida County for a combined 53 years.
Portraits of the judges were unveiled on Jan. 5, Kinney in Branch I, Mangerson in Branch II.
As they say, a picture paints a thousand words, but if that’s the case, the portraits that will hang in the judges’ respective courtrooms for the rest of the building’s history only give a glimpse into their colorful careers.
“The hanging of the portraits, it was kind of a symbolic thing,” Kinney said.
“The portrait is nice because of the fact that we invest our entire working lives trying to do things right, in court,” Mangerson said. “I think it reminds the court of what we’ve done.”
“You go back in the whole history of this county, and there’s only five guys up there and now there will be six,” Kinney said of the Branch I courtroom.
“You see all these people, all of them were judges, and you know all of them were elected, all of them swore to uphold the law, all of them did the best they could,” Mangerson said. “I think that’s important, to see the continuity on the wall.”
“So there’s been, in other words, a lot of stability. And that’s very good, because people are better judges if they know the lay of the land,” Kinney said.
Mangerson was actually the first judge to ever sit the Branch II bench in Oneida County, and as such was able to create a unique standard for future judges’ portraits.
“Judge Kinney in Branch I has all of these photographs of the judges who preceded him,” Mangerson said. “They’re all photographs, and they’re all framed alike. Well in Branch II I didn’t have that restriction.”
Mangerson’s portrait, unlike the portraits in Branch I, is an oil painting. But that’s not the only reason it’s unique. The portrait was also painted by Mangerson’s son.
“We have a unique thing where he happens to be a judge, I happen to be a painter,” said Jesse Mangerson, son of Judge Mangerson and assistant director of the MFA Fine Art program at the San Francisco Academy of Art. “I told him I wanted to paint a portrait of him at one point anyway… But then, to think of it hanging here, for the rest of time hopefully, it’s a really great thing.”
Both judges said they enjoyed their time on the bench, and have few regrets, but there were still parts of the job that wore on them.
“Some cases are difficult because the legal system doesn’t lend itself to resolving the issue,” Mangerson said. “The third time drunk driver, you know, whom I had given the spiel to the first time… I really didn’t enjoy it when people actively avoided having the system work for them.”
In some cases a defendant would be coming to the judges for more than a third time. In Wisconsin OWI law, penalties stop increasing after the “tenth or greater offense,” which unfortunately Mangerson has seen before.
“It’s quite obvious, if somebody’s charged for the tenth time, then none of the typical cause and effect dispositions worked,” he said. “That was frustrating… there’s nothing I can do. Sure, I can make you miserable… it’s just not relevant. Because you haven’t changed, six or seven or eight times, you’re not going to change now.”
“I saw some members of certain families three or four generations in the 31 years I was on the bench,” Kinney said of his own frustrations.
In today’s courtroom judges are experimenting with new types of correctional judiciary.
“Judges are expected to take a hands-on approach, and be more or less social workers in a lot of situations,” Mangerson said of the change in tactics. “It’s frustrating because you can’t get them to change… Oneida County is getting into it finally, and that is where the courts actually get into a one-on-one relationship with the offender in drunk driving. It’s called OWI Courts.”
Mangerson said he has concerns about the way this new system could affect judges’ abilities to stay neutral, but understands the difficult position they are in.
“The judiciary is still, as it always has, doing an excellent job for the citizens of Wisconsin, with too little money.” Mangerson said. “But if it works, more power to them.”
Kinney also reflected on the changes since he began his judicial career at the exceptionally young age of 28.
“One of the great changes I’ve seen is when I came here as District Attorney, the Sheriff had an eighth-grade education,” Kinney said. “Now they don’t hire anybody without a four-year degree. And there are cops I’ve worked with here that had Masters degrees… In other words, law enforcement is much more professional than it was. They’re much better trained.”
Judges work closely with the local police department, and both Kinney and Mangerson said that was a good experience.
“I have not seen a better-run department than the one here,” Kinney added.
But it wasn’t just the police department that the judges enjoyed working with. The duo made a point of how much they enjoyed their co-workers, Mangerson saying at the unveiling, “I don’t think I miss the work, but I certainly miss the people I worked with.”
“I was always proud of the fact that I was part of that and that the people I worked with and who worked with me— the clerks, the court reporters, the police—were all squeaky clean,” Kinney said. “You have all this recent talk about horrible government [outside of Wisconsin], and I have a hard time identifying with any of that because that isn’t what I knew.”
“People don’t know how much effort good employees of the county and the state put in each and every day supporting their judge in his or her decisions,” Mangerson said at the unveiling. “And that’s what I miss, I miss rubbing elbows with some of the finest employees I’ve ever seen anywhere.”
Judge Kinney served Oneida County for 31 years in Branch 1, Mangerson for 23 years in Branch II before moving on to a position in the Court of Appeals in Wausau. Today they both serve as reserve judges, in addition to remaining active with several committees, and in Kinney’s case running a side business in mediation.
“When I first took office, I can remember, when it was my turn to speak I said, what we’re looking for here is, win or lose, we want every person to leave the court feeling like they got a fair shake,” Mangerson said.