The newest member of the Nebraska Supreme Court has spent most of his career as a prosecutor and judge, but those who’ve worked with him say he’s more than a law-and-order guy.

Gov. Pete Ricketts appointed Sarpy County District Judge Max Kelch to the seven-member high court. Kelch replaces retired Judge Michael McCormack and will represent the judicial district that covers parts of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

A prosecutor and a defense lawyer who’ve tried cases before Kelch described him as decisive and tough but also inquisitive and fair. Both remarked that Kelch enjoys doing legal research and writing opinions, two major requirements of his new position.

“I think it was a really good choice the governor made,” said Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov. “He has an impressive record in a whole spectrum of legal practice.”

Kelch, 58, of Papillion, has served as district judge in Sarpy, Cass and Otoe Counties since 2007, when he was appointed by then-Gov. Dave Heineman. Kelch spent the two previous years as a Sarpy County judge.

A 1981 graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Law, Kelch also has been in private practice and has worked as an assistant city attorney in Nebraska City. The governor said in a press release that he liked Kelch’s blend of “real world experience” in several different legal capacities.

“He has demonstrated he understands that the role of the court is to interpret the law, and this approach will continue to serve our state well as Nebraska’s next Supreme Court judge,” Ricketts said.

Before becoming a judge, Kelch worked for 18 years as Otoe County attorney in Nebraska City. While county attorneys are most known for prosecuting criminal cases, they also handle an array of civil matters and run for election.

Cass County District Judge Jeffrey Funke worked alongside Kelch for eight years when Funke was a deputy county attorney. He said Kelch’s vast trial experience as both a lawyer and a judge will serve the high court well.

As for anyone who thinks Kelch won’t give a fair shake to criminal defendants, Funke said his colleague takes the role of judge very seriously.

“He understands the duty of a judge to be fair and impartial,” Funke said. “And he’s got a lot of common sense.”

Sarpy County Public Defender Tom Strigenz submitted a letter to the judicial nominating commission in support of Kelch.

Strigenz said Kelch’s writing and researching skills are “legendary” among lawyers who regularly practice before him.

“I think Max Kelch was born to be an appellant court judge,” he said.

Ricketts selected Kelch, a registered Republican, over three other finalists: Douglas County Judge Susan Bazis, Douglas County District Judge Gary Randall and Omaha attorney Patrick Guinan.

The finalists were forwarded to the governor by the nominating commission. The appointment was the governor’s second to the Supreme Court since he took office in 2015.

Supreme Court Judge Kenneth Stephan retired in July, and Ricketts appointed Lancaster County District Judge Stephanie Stacy to fill the vacancy.

Supreme Court judges are paid $166,000 annually.

— World-Herald News Service

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