Columbia County DA Jane Kohlwey to leave office in January
Columbia County District Attorney Jane Kohlwey has announced she will resign in January, less than halfway through her most recent term in office.
Kohlwey, of Rio, submitted her letter of resignation July 23 to Gov. Scott Walker, giving an effective last day of Jan. 12, 2019. She offered no specific reason for her exit from the office.
“I’m just going on to another area of my life,” Kohlwey said Thursday afternoon. “I look forward to more time for some of the things I’ve missed out on with my family and my church activities and other leisure activities.”
Although she said she hopes to still work “some,” it will not include private law practice. Kohlwey said she plans to leave legal work behind.
Kohlwey, 60, graduated from the University of Wisconsin College of Law in 1985, and entered private practice with Stoltz and Strohschein in Columbus. She later joined Miller, Rogers and Owen in Portage.
In 1998, Kohlwey, running as a Republican, challenged the incumbent district attorney and Democrat Tim Henney, accusing him of running a disorganized office with low morale. In public forums before the election, Kohlwey said she would be more aggressive with prosecutions and settle for fewer plea deals.
Kohlwey has held the office since ousting Henney in 1998 and defeating him again in 2000, before the term lengths changed from two years to four. For 16 years, Kohlwey faced little to no electoral opposition until Portage attorney Doug Kammer ran for the job as an independent in November 2016.
“I’ve got a lot left to do yet,” Kohlwey said prior to the 2016 election. She cited the transition to electronic document filing and a necessary temporary office move during renovation of the courthouse. “That’s not a time, when you have all that going on, to be shifting gears, having inexperienced people running the ship.”
Kohlwey defeated Kammer 52.5 percent to 47.3 percent, with 18,016 ballots cast.
“I’ve known I was going to do this for a while,” Kohlwey said.
She said she initially began thinking about the decision in January 2017.
“I wanted to see the office through the transition of back and forth through the building project and some of the changes in staff we had, and I didn’t want to leave the office high and dry with another attorney out,” she said.
A member of Walker’s staff, who asked not to be named, confirmed Kohlwey’s resignation and said the opening would be officially announced at a later date, kicking off an application process.
Kohlwey said she has not received a response to her letter from the governor’s office.
Although the attorney appointed to the position only will serve half a term before facing election, that lawyer will have a significant advantage.
The success rate of incumbent district attorneys seeking re-election is about 95 percent, according to a study of nearly 1,000 elections between 1996 and 2006 conducted by the Wake Forest University School of Law and published in a 2009 issue of the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law.
Kohlwey said she could not know what kind of things Walker might be looking for in a replacement or whether political motivations may play a role.
“I’ve never approached the job as a partisan and, in fact, I’ve said that the district attorney’s office should be a non-partisan office,” she said. “I … in most instances tended to agree with what the Republican Party has stood for. I felt that was the honest thing to do, to run on a party platform, with the party that most exemplified what I usually stood for.”
The attorney appointed to fill Kohlwey’s position will oversee an experienced staff, though most employees are relatively new in the county.
Assistant district attorneys Mary Ellen Karst, Maura Melka and Jordan Lippert all joined the department within the past two years. Lippert previously worked a quarter-time position with the office, leaving for a full-time position elsewhere, but returning at three-quarters of full time after Troy Cross left the office when he was elected judge.
Cross and Crystal Long had been the most senior attorneys each with about 19 years in the office, but with Cross now seated as the Columbia County Branch 3 judge, Long is most senior by more than a decade.
“It’s going to be much more difficult until we know if the governor is going to appoint someone,” Kohlwey said. “In a way, I’m in a holding pattern until the governor says what he is going to do.”
Cross declined to comment on the situation. Kammer, who most recently challenged Kohlwey for the seat said he found the development interesting, but would not say whether it is something that he would consider pursuing.
Portage attorney Steven Sarbacker said he learned about Kohlwey leaving about two weeks ago, but despite having been a past write-in challenger for the position, did not know if his resume might be among those sent to Walker’s office.
“That’s a lot to think about,” Sarbacker said. He added his lack of any political affiliation likely would hurt his chances for appointment by the governor.
Kohlwey said she believes it is important to have the position filled before she steps down.
“Our office is like almost every district attorney’s office across the state and cannot afford to be down a full-time attorney,” Kohlwey said.