Governor names Kengis as new Allegan County Circuit judge

By: 
Daniel Pepper, Staff Writer

Allegan County will see a familiar face on the circuit court bench, as county prosecutor Roberts Kengis becomes a judge.

Kengis was appointed to the vacant seat on the Allegan County Circuit Court Wednesday, Feb. 28, by Gov. Rick Snyder. He’ll take his seat on the bench Monday, March 19.

Kengis said he chose to apply for the position after talking it over with his wife, others and praying about it.

“I have a strong Christian faith and I want to do what God wants me to do,” he said. “I feel he kept me as a prosecutor as long as I was supposed to be here.

“I feel He wants me to be a judge, so this is what I’m going to do.”

The seat was open after Judge Kevin Cronin retired in January well before the end of his six-year term in 2020.

Kengis was chosen from among those who applied by Snyder, who said, “Rob has faithfully served Allegan County both as the elected county prosecutor and as an assistant prosecutor for the past 25 years.

“I am confident that his legal experience and reputation for fairness will help him continue to serve Allegan County residents well.”

Kengis had worked for the prosecutor’s office as an intern, contract employee/attorney, assistant prosecutor and chief assistant prosecutor from 1991 until 2016. Kengis then became prosecuting attorney, winning election unopposed in 2016 and succeeding long-time prosecutor Fred Anderson in January 2017.

Kengis said he had considered becoming a judge, though it wasn’t an immediate goal until the seat opened up.

“I thought it was very important for Allegan County to have a good judge and I didn’t know who was going to apply,” Kengis said.

He said he’d gotten a call from Snyder telling him he’d be appointed to the position earlier on Feb. 28.

“He asked how I was doing, I said ‘Good’ and he said ‘I’m calling to make your day even better.’”

The interview process included a short interview with a committee of the state bar and longer one with the governor’s legal department, as well as a long application.

He said the main area he’d been asked about was, as a career prosecutor, civil and divorce law.

“I’m looking forward to learning a new kind of law and a new area of the law,” Kengis said.

As judge he said he’d take advantage of additional training from the state court administrator’s office, as well the lawyers who appear in court to help him get up to speed.

Coming from the prosecutor’s office, Kengis will face the same issue Judge Margaret Zuzich Bakker faced when she became circuit judge and had to recuse herself from cases she’d handled as an assistant prosecutor.

As the prosecutor, Kengis in theory was involved in every criminal case that originated while he was in office. He said he’d soon be meeting with state court administrator’s office to find out what guidelines and parameters there were for the situation.

“I don’t know everything about every case here, but I’d of course recuse to avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” Kengis said. “If I don’t know anything about the case, I’d be willing to hear it, assuming the defense attorney and the defendant agreed.” 

It may be that Kengis gets a crash course in civil and divorce law during his first period on the bench before new criminal cases make their way through the system.

“I’ve told Judge Bakker that during that time, I’ll take on additional divorce and civil cases from her docket,” Kengis said. “That’ll give me an even better chance to learn what I’ll need to know about those aspects.”

Kengis said some have wondered whether a prosecutor becoming judge would favor the prosecution side in cases he presided over.

“Some people have asked if I could be fair to criminal defendants,” he said. “I say absolutely, first because part of my job as prosecutor is to take all sides into consideration, including the defendant.”

He also said his family history of leaving Latvia to avoid the oppressive rule of the Soviet Union was important.

“I’m very aware of the importance of the rights we enjoy here and I’ll respect those rights as a judge,” Kengis said.

Another bit of Latvian heritage he has is the S at the end of his first name. In Latvian, every male name ends with a plural, so his parents continued that in the United States.

During his career, Kengis said he’d seen some judges be heavy-handed with lawyers and defendants, and he would try to avoid that.

“I look at a judge as not being above a lawyer or anyone who comes to court,” he said. “It’s a level playing field, but the judge just has a role where he has to make decisions.

“We all play a role, just like in life...”

“Just because the judge’s seat is a little higher doesn’t mean he’s above everyone else.”

He said he’d try to make sure everyone in the courthouse treated everyone fairly.

“I want people to feel as if they are treated well by everyone who they come into contact with,” he said.

Kengis said he didn’t have any specific ideas for changes to make.

“I don’t have any immediate plans to change anything,” he said. “I intend to spend a lot of time learning before I’d try to change anything.”

He said he was excited to work with his fellow judges.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Kengis said. “It’ll be good to work with Judge Bakker again. We worked together very well when she was in this office.”

He said he looked forward to working with the county’s other judges, as well, especially Judge William A. Baillargeon who he’d worked with on creating the county’s Veterans Court.

Kengis will have to run for the remainder of Cronin’s term this year. As for Kengis’ former position, Bakker, empowered by state law, appointed chief assistant prosecutor Myrene Koch.

Kengis is married to Shelley and they have two daughters, Vija and Elanore.

A Bay City native and graduate of Bay City Central High School, he graduated from the University of Michigan and got his juris doctor from Wayne State University.

He attends and is a board member at the Kalamazoo Latvian Evangelical Lutheran United Church.

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