Justice Penny Wolfgang retires, but not by choice

Posted at 10:37 AM, Dec 30, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-31 10:52:21-05

From behind her desk, Justice Penny Wolfgang presides over a showcase of her decades long career.  She is pictured with a former president, a former governor and a big city mayor.

But all of the pictures are taken down.  The day before Christmas Eve, Wolfgang left her office and retired from State Supreme Court. 

"I’ve been fantastically fortunate to have such an amazing rewarding career," when asked what the walls would say if they could speak.

Her career is not coming to an end by choice.  The state mandates retirement of supreme court judges at 70 years old.  Voters rejected any change years back.

"It is ridiculous to have a mandatory retirement age," Wolfgang said.  "I feel really bad and I’m really upset I have to go, when I’m not ready and I feel like I still have a lot to contribute." 

Walking away isn’t easy after 30 years on the state bench.  She's proud of her accomplishments, having also served as a county judge.  From the start, Wolfgang set out to make a difference, especially as a woman in a male dominated field.

"I had to struggle and work so hard.  I wouldn’t want people to think it was just handed to me," Wolfgang said.  "I feel like it was worthwhile in the end and I think it led to the acceptance of women — that they can be strong leaders, they can be fair and impartial judges, which I hope I’ve been...that they can be strong when they have to be."

Strength came at sentencing inside Wolfgang’s state courtroom.  There was a professional strength and from those who testified.

"I was always influenced in almost all my sentencing by victim impact statements, by victims talking in court," Wolfgang said. 

Last year, Erika Webster told Wolfgang about her fiancee Bill Sager, pushed down the stairs inside Mollys Pub, by the bar manager, leading to Sager’s death.

“I became a widow at 27 years old because of the actions of another,” Webster said.

It was Wolfgang who sentenced the bar manager, Jeffrey Basil, to 18 years in state prison, for manslaughter.

Wolfgang called this case legally troubling and upsetting.

"It just happened in a second.  It can change your whole life," Wolfgang said.

Testimony can sometimes be graphic and gruesome.  Wolfgang said she keeps her professional life and her private life separate. 

There was no training for what was to happen months before her retirement, with the loss of her closest confidant, her husband of 51 years, Michael Wolfgang.  They married right out of law school.
"He was my adviser, my best friend.  He understood politics; he had lived here his whole life, so he had a lot of roots.  Really, he’s responsible for my entire career," Wolfgang recalled.

Her career started in the late 1960s, as a public defender.  It has evolved into the servant Justice Penny Wolfgang has become and the job she leaves, having left her mark.

Wolfgang says she'll become a hearing officer type judge.  She will focus much of her efforts on local committees and women's rights.