Beloved senior judge serves last day on the bench after 38 years

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Many remarked it was the “end to an era” Thursday as 6th Judicial District Senior Judge Thomas Koehler served his last day on the bench after 38 years.

“They’re kicking me out. I told you this day would come,” Koehler jokingly told court staff and defense lawyers gathered in a courtroom for an informal reception. The theme was “everything ducks” for the beloved judge, who is an avid hunter.   

Defense lawyer Mark Brown said Koehler was a mentor to him.

“He was always active during trials, questioning the jurors during (jury selection), and he always made sure to safeguard the defendants in court.”

Tyler Johnston, assistant Linn County public defender, pointed out it was Koehler who helped organize the move of the courts to Kirkwood Community College when floodwaters shut down the courthouse for several months in 2008. Koehler was the guy who greeted people when they came into the temporary court area at Kirkwood and helped them get to the right room.

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden said it’s difficult to imagine what it will be like without Koehler “because it seems like he has always been here. He has faithfully served as a reliable and sturdy pillar of the justice system.”

Vander Sanden, along with many others, said he will always remember the judge for his “remarkable work ethic.”

“He never turns away any work,” said Lori Mulherin, Koehler’s court reporter from 1980 to 2009. “He is highly efficient and can do pleas faster than anyone. He just loves the work.”

Several people mentioned his energy and said they will miss his “rapid fire” pleadings.  

Koehler was appointed to the bench in January 1979 as a full-time magistrate. He became a district judge in 1982 and retired in 2009, but then took senior status. He served another eight years until Thursday, two days before his 80th birthday, which is the longest a judge can serve on senior status.

Judges have mandatory retirement at 72 and can take senior status and stay on the bench until age 78. Koehler then took the option to apply for one-year terms until he reached 80.     

Throughout the day Thursday, judges, lawyers, court clerks and court reporters said the Linn County Courthouse wouldn’t be the same without the “best dressed” judge walking the hallways, eagerly waiting to take pleas or conduct sentencing every Thursday.

Judge Mitchell Turner said if it weren’t for Koehler on Thursdays, he could never get through all the case management conferences.

Turner had 31 case management conferences and six other hearings on Thursdays, while Koehler took 12 scheduled pleas/sentencings and probably had several unscheduled ones.

“Judge Koehler never gets rattled and he’s so efficient,” Turner said. “There’s no way I could have done all those pleas, along with case management conferences.”

Todd Weimer, assistant Linn County public defender, said Koehler is the “true definition of a public servant who’s given more to the system of justice than anyone.”

Weimer also pointed out that he’s saved the district a lot of money.

Senior judges receive an annual stipend of only $8,527, a monthly retirement annuity which is based on their salary at retirement and a portion of the senior’s and his or her spouse’s health insurance. They can work only 13 weeks or 65 days a year.

Koehler worked an average of more than 77 days a year since 2010, according to court staff who tallied up his work days. Seniors don’t receive extra money if they work more than 65 days. Koehler put in the most days, 95, in 2010.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

"(Koehler is) the true definition of a public servant who's given more to the system of justice than anyone.”

- Todd Weimer

Assistant Linn County public defender

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