December 11, 2023

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COVER STORY | The dream job: A unique coaching program helps steer diverse lawyers to judgeships | Courts

Phelicia Kossie-Tonje stopped a woman in the middle of her story about how the father of her children was smashing windows, breaking doors and slashing her tires.

“My biggest concern here,” said Kossie-Tonje, the Adams County magistrate who was considering whether to grant the woman a protection order, “is, why didn’t you include some of this other information with your request?”

It was a Tuesday morning in March and Kossie-Tonje was in the middle of back-to-back-to-back cases from people who believed they were in imminent danger and wanted legal protection against their assailants.

The woman currently in front of Kossie-Tonje began her pitch earnestly, talking about her partner’s threats to beat her up, her report to the police and a prior protection order in Arapahoe County.

Her mood changed when Kossie-Tonje informed her that, if those other incidents were not listed on the application, the court could not consider them because the alleged perpetrator had not been put on notice.

“I know some people get nervous when they come to the courthouse. They don’t do well trying to write stuff out here,” said Kossie-Tonje, walking the woman through the three key sections of the protection order form. “4A is the most recent incident. 4B is the most serious incident. 4C is any other acts of threatened violence. You can put ‘at the end of February 2022,’ but you have to give me some date parameters.”

The woman griped that the clerk’s office had not told her she needed dates, to which Kossie-Tonje explained that the clerk could not give her legal advice. Kossie-Tonje encouraged the woman, who was appearing via video feed, to fill out the form at home and bring it in.

“Are you serious? Oh, my god,” the woman gasped. “I don’t have time to sit here and do that.”

“Ma’am, that’s what you have to do. Due process under the Colorado and the U.S. Constitution requires the other person be put on notice. He has to know what your allegations are,” Kossie-Tonje explained sternly.

The woman, visibly exasperated, claimed her partner was threatening her and she was scared for her life. Kossie-Tonje again advised her to bring the form to the courthouse.

“Thank you,” the woman sighed before logging off.

Later, Kossie-Tonje reflected on the hard reality of protection order requests, which she hears twice daily. The people who come before her believe they are in imminent danger, but Colorado law is binary — they either qualify for a protection order or they do not.

Kossie-Tonje, 46, said she enjoys the work but would prefer a job with slightly more discretion.

“With county court, there’s a lot more tools in my toolbox,” she told Colorado Politics. “Yes, you may plead guilty, but now I don’t necessarily have jail/no jail. I have jail, probation, weekend jail — I have all these other things that I don’t have in protection order world. And that feels great.”







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Magistrate Phelicia Kossie-Tonje poses for a portrait in her chambers on Tuesday, March 15, 2022, in Brighton, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Denver Gazette)


Kossie-Tonje has made multiple attempts at joining the ranks of the more than 300 county and district court judges across Colorado, so far unsuccessfully. Hoping to change her trajectory, she signed up with a pilot program the state’s Judicial Department launched last year, named Dream Team 2.0. Billed as a six-month coaching program, the intent is to get lawyers onto the bench who have historically been underrepresented due to their race, gender, sexual orientation or other attributes.

Sumi Lee, head of the Judicial Diversity Outreach office, developed the Dream Team 2.0 initiative along with the nonprofit Center for Legal Inclusiveness. Although interested candidates can attend presentations about how to be a judge, the formal one-on-one coaching program was the first of its kind in Colorado, the annual report from Lee’s office indicated.

The judicial branch has identified diversity on the bench as a priority. Last year, it dispatched Monica M. Márquez, the first openly gay and Latina Supreme Court justice, to speak to a congressional subcommittee about diversity efforts, such as the Dream Team. She stressed that diversity of life experiences and backgrounds for judges not only enhances the decisions they make, but that litigants who feel the judiciary reflects the community will have more confidence in the justice system.

“That perception of legitimacy is critical; it promotes confidence in, and respect for, the decisions rendered by our courts and thus strengthens the rule of law itself,” Márquez said in prepared remarks.

Lee’s office compiles and publishes demographic data about the roughly 338 appointed judges and justices. As of August 2021 only 16% of judges were people of color and 41% were women.

There are pockets where that disparity is exaggerated. The Colorado Supreme Court, for example, has had only one Black member in its history, who has long since stepped down. Last month, a panel of three Court of Appeals judges, all of whom were white men, heard cases at a northeast Denver charter school, where students of color were over 90% of the population. 

And within the 17th Judicial District, where Kossie-Tonje is a magistrate, Adams County saw the appointment of its first ever Black judge at the end of 2020. There has never been a Black woman appointed to that bench.

For Kossie-Tonje, getting coached on how to be a more viable candidate was an attractive proposition because with so few vacancies anticipated in Adams County, each opportunity has outsized importance.

“Especially out here, the bench is so young that there’s gonna be a long time before you get this wave of appointments,” Kossie-Tonje said. “You can’t play that waiting game. You just have to apply when there’s an opening.”

The finalist

Phelicia Kossie-Tonje traces her decision to become an attorney to a funeral in her home state of Texas.

When she was around 12 years old, she and a group of other kids attended a church funeral where her grandfather was the minister. In her recollection, the children were misbehaving, prompting an admonishment from the minister afterward.

“Everyone gets one last look before the casket is closed. What will people say about you? Did you make a difference in anyone’s life? Did you make a difference at all?” her grandfather said.

From there, Kossie-Tonje began her slow journey up the legal ladder. As a teenager, she worked for a Black woman who was an attorney around Fort Worth. Kossie-Tonje married out of high school, but the relationship ultimately faltered. Looking to finish a college degree, she worked at the general counsel’s office at Southern Methodist University, where she took classes at night.

She graduated from St. Mary’s University School of Law, where her accomplishments included bringing a case before one of Texas’ appellate courts and working for the federal public defender in the border city of Brownsville. From there, the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender recruited Kossie-Tonje, who had never stepped foot in the state and had no idea what it would be like.

“Quite honestly, the question I got the most when I said I was gonna be a Colorado public defender — again coming from Texas,” she recalled. “People said, ‘There are Black people in Colorado?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know. But I’m going!'”

Although she was excited to perform criminal defense work, Kossie-Tonje still remembers her introduction to the courts in Jefferson County, where her office was. On her first day, she wore a suit and she sat where the other attorneys sat in the courtroom. The judge saw her and said, “Ma’am, defendants sit behind the bar.” Another public defender had to explain that Kossie-Tonje was a lawyer.

“That was my introduction to Colorado courts,” she recalled.

After spending time in Jefferson County, Kossie-Tonje left for the public defender’s Denver office, then for private civil practice. Eventually, a friend who had gotten a judgeship suggested that she apply to be a magistrate in Adams County. 

“I don’t know what I saw as far as a judge, but I didn’t think I had whatever that was,” she said.

Magistrates are hired by the courts and perform a variety of tasks, such as handling first appearances in criminal cases or issuing arrest warrants. Their authority stops short of presiding over civil or criminal trials, but the parties to a case may agree to have a magistrate handle more advanced proceedings.

With the exception of Denver County Court, the path to a judgeship on any county court, district court, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court is the same across the state. A citizen-led commission looks at applications, finds two or three finalists, and sends them to the governor for the ultimate decision. Once appointed, the voters decide whether to retain judges for terms of varying lengths.

After becoming a magistrate, Kossie-Tonje succeeded in making the shortlist on three occasions for positions in Arapahoe County Court, Douglas County Court and Adams County Court. In each case, after failing to get the appointment, she was told the successful candidates had stronger connections to the jurisdiction or were a better fit.

Kossie-Tonje interpreted “better fit” to mean political ties.

“The one good thing I have been told from members of the governor’s staff is that my interview skills have improved. There’s no deficit,” she said. They reportedly told her, “Keep doing the work.”

“That’s always a positive. They don’t always tell people to keep trying. They say thank you, and that’s the end of the call,” she said.

After the third rejection, Kossie-Tonje stepped back to ponder her applications, all for courts in different counties.

“Is that the message you wanna send?” she asked herself. “Or do you want to say that you are actually devoted to one place? Because every nominating commission wants to know you want to improve that jurisdiction. So, if you’re flirting with other jurisdictions, that shows you’re not as devoted.”







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Magistrate Phelicia Kossie-Tonje stands and sings along before the start of Sunday services at the Bethlehem Temple Family Worship Center, March 20, 2022. (Sara Hertwig/for The Denver Gazette)


Kossie-Tonje decided she would focus on Adams County and the 17th Judicial District. There was a complicating factor with that choice: Since taking office, Gov. Jared Polis had appointed a dozen new judges to the bench there. Two district judges, given their tenure, could conceivably retire in the next couple of years. Otherwise, Kossie-Tonje did not see too many opportunities.

In other words, when a vacancy did arise, she needed her application to be airtight.

Coach Jackson

Guiding her through that process was a well-known name: Gary Jackson, a semi-retired senior judge on the Denver County Court who for years has advocated for diversity on the bench.

A former local and federal prosecutor, Jackson helped establish the Sam Cary Bar Association, Colorado’s professional group for Black lawyers. In the past two years, Jackson had been honored twice, with an induction into the Blacks in Colorado Hall of Fame, as well as the National Bar Association’s Fred David Gray Hall of Fame. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who appointed Jackson to the county court bench in 2012, called Jackson “a giant in the legal community” upon his retirement. 

Kossie-Tonje and Jackson jumped in immediately to review her applications. She frequently called him “Coach Jackson.”

What put her in a unique spot, Jackson said, was the fact that the judicial nominating commissions had repeatedly seen her as qualified enough to put in front of the governor. Being a magistrate would likely add to everything she already brought to the table.

“I’m going to be frank with you: The last district court position in Arapahoe County, the nominating commission sent up three African-American lawyers to the governor,” Jackson said. “It demonstrates that the judicial nominating commission in Arapahoe County recognizes the need for more African-American judges in the county. … The pipeline of African-American lawyers applying in Adams County isn’t as great.”







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Retired Denver County Judge Gary Jackson poses for a portrait at his home on Friday, April 4, 2022, in Denver, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Denver Gazette)




Jackson himself had been under consideration during the Clinton administration for a federal judgeship, but the nomination did not go his way. It was not until his late sixties that he got onto the bench in Denver. His advice to Kossie-Tonje was informed by his own time applying: to contact nominating commissioners, directly or indirectly, and remind them she was ready and willing to be appointed.

“The perception that they may have is that she’s applied in Douglas and Arapahoe and is she forum shopping?” Jackson said. “She’s got to make it clear that it is her desire to serve the people of Adams County. That she intends to reside there, to raise her teenage son there, and that Adams County is the place that she wants to be.”

Over the winter holidays, Jackson assigned Kossie-Tonje some nonfiction reading: “Showdown,” a book by Wil Haygood about Thurgood Marshall’s nomination as the first Black man to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Jackson intended for her to absorb the message that there have always been hurdles for people of color reaching the highest offices in society, but that the barriers facing Kossie-Tonje are nowhere near as high as for Marshall, who had almost been lynched while working as a lawyer in the South.

Kossie-Tonje took away one other lesson. President Lyndon B. Johnson had effectively engineered the vacancy for Marshall by enticing a sitting justice off of the bench. While such machinations may be possible at the federal level, that is not the case in Colorado’s multi-tiered system.

“We might be well intentioned to add diversity, but if there’s no openings, there’s nothing we can do,” she said.

The introvert 

Magistrate Bryon Large would only hear from two witnesses early on a Tuesday morning: A man who should have been able to take at least $5,400 off of his 2020 taxes by claiming two daughters as dependents, and the mother who defied a court order and claimed one daughter on her own taxes.

The question was whether she was in contempt of court and what, if any, punishment she should receive. Although both parties had the benefit of legal representation, the woman sealed her fate on the witness stand when she cavalierly stated that she had done something other than “what the court is forcing me to do.”

Speaking rapidly, Large quoted her statement back to her in finding that she knew of the court’s order and could have complied with it, but did not.

“That leads the court to find beyond a reasonable doubt that her lack of compliance is offensive to the dignity of this court,” Large said. He ordered the woman to amend her 2020 tax returns within 60 days, adding that the next step for noncompliance would be jail.

“I don’t know what it’s going to take to get your attention to follow the court’s orders,” Large said stoically.

Large, 44, joined the bench in Adams County as a magistrate shortly after Kossie-Tonje, and his workload came to include solely domestic matters of child custody and marriage dissolutions. It was a somewhat familiar area of the law to him. Growing up in a small town in southern Colorado, his parents had consulted with attorneys during their divorce.

He originally went to school to become a Spanish teacher. In his last year of college, Large took a couple of law classes and was fascinated by what he saw.

“Reading through court opinions and how judges write in their decisions, it really struck a chord with me,” he said.

After enrolling at the University of Denver’s law school, Large divorced his wife and came out as gay. His concern at the time was whether he could obtain a job, given his sexual orientation. Finding friends and mentors in law school assuaged those fears, and he opened his own family and immigration law firm after graduating.

In August 2016, Large joined Colorado’s Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel as a trial lawyer. Akin to a human resources department for lawyers, OARC investigates and sanctions lawyers who engage in misconduct. At the top of the office sits a presiding disciplinary judge, who hears cases on panels with other lawyers and even non-attorneys.

“A trial, really — they’re certainly not as exciting as what you see on TV, but they are like that,” Large recalled. “Certain aspects really sang to my heart. It was nice to be in the role to make the profession a better place and also to protect the public.”

Around the time that Large applied to be a magistrate, he also put his name in to get appointed as a district judge. He made it to the shortlist on two occasions, neither time getting the nod from the governor’s office. Large was especially frustrated the second time because, at that point, he had experience as a magistrate. The governor’s office evidently felt he needed more time in the job.







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Magistrate Bryon Large poses for a portrait in front of his bench on Tuesday, March 15, 2022, in Brighton, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Denver Gazette)


“With rare exceptions, my overall perception of the process is that by the time you make it to the governor’s office, I don’t think there’s any question about your qualifications at that point. I’m not even sure what they’re looking for by the time you get to the governor’s office,” he said. “I think it’s more whether the governor’s office feels comfortable with this person. That’s my perception.”

Large pinned his weakness on his interviewing skills.

“I’m an introvert and so soft-spoken at times,” he conceded, and added with a laugh, “I’m sure sounding authoritative is absolutely important, but I don’t feel like I have that issue in the courtroom. I have a microphone!”

Coach Hart

When Large learned who his Dream Team 2.0 coach would be, he said he felt like he “hit the jackpot.”

Justice Melissa Hart is the third-most-junior member of the Supreme Court but has a long history as an academic and a mentor. While a justice, she has chaired roughly two dozen judicial nominating commissions as a nonvoting member. Like the others involved in the coaching program, she had also experienced what it feels like to fall short and not get the job.

“I realized the time I was in the list of three but wasn’t selected by Gov. (John) Hickenlooper, everyone I was talking to said it was a no-brainer, it had to be me. It was the obvious choice. And it was a punch in the gut when it wasn’t me. But then I realized everyone who was talking to (Justice) Rich Gabriel was telling him it’s a no-brainer, it had to be him,” she said. “The next time, I didn’t let anyone talk to me!”

When Hart and Large first met for coaching, they talked about his previous times applying for judgeships, and whether he could stay the course even in the face of a public failure.

“Some people decide ‘I can’t. I’m happy enough in what I’m doing. This is too hard’,” Hart conceded. “Bryon was someone I already knew and was friendly with, so I’m trying to create a little distance so I’m not guiding his ship.”

She emphasized the role that luck plays in judicial appointments. In one group of three nominees, a given person might be the perfect choice for a seat. With another group, the governor could see something entirely different.

Hart believed that Large’s experience as a magistrate would help him with the judicial nominating commission, if not the governor’s office. Not everyone in the Dream Team 2.0 program would end up becoming judges, even with coaching, she said, because some participants had their hearts set on specific judicial seats that may not come open anytime soon. Although Large was focused on the trial courts, he was open to whichever location became available.

“I asked him, as homework for this next meeting we’re having, to think through what he saw as a timeline for positions that may be coming open. He told me about Adams and Denver,” Hart said, “and, interestingly, the presiding disciplinary judge.”







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Colorado Supreme Court Justice Melissa Hart is framed by one of the houseplants she keeps in her chambers while posing for a portrait on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022, in Denver, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Gazette)




Judge and decider

On Jan. 26, Hart sent an email to Large and Dream Team 2.0 coordinator Sumi Lee.

“Bryon has decided to apply to serve as the presiding disciplinary judge,” she wrote. “I prefer not to be Bryon’s coach at a time when I am a decisionmaker on a position he is applying for.”

The presiding disciplinary judge, or PDJ, is a relatively recent creation. To date, there have only been two men appointed to that position. The current officeholder, William R. Lucero, has held the job since 2004. Because there is only one PDJ, not subject to voter retention or age limits in the job, it can amount to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Hart later explained that it would have been worse for her to stay in the coaching program and affect Large’s chances of getting the job he wanted.

“It was clearly the right thing to do,” she said of leaving the program.

Kossie-Tonje, who learned that her fellow magistrate was interested in being the presiding disciplinary judge, believed the position was Large’s to lose.

“Oh, this is perfect for him because that’s what he loves to do,” she said. “I think he’s gonna get it. I think it’s right up his alley.”

A few days after Hart’s email, Large confirmed he would go about his application on his own, and Lee had not paired him with another coach. The process for applying to be the PDJ is very similar to the process for any other judgeship. There is a committee that screens applicants and selects three finalists. Instead of sending those finalists to the governor, the names go to the Supreme Court justices.

Compared with the citizen-led judicial nominating commissions, the people screening for the PDJ spot know about the regulation of the legal profession.

“Because this position is so different, it may be a bad strategy call — I have no idea — but I’m tailoring this one very, very differently,” Large said of his application. “It’s just a lot less focused on me personally.”

Large’s application leaned into his time at OARC. Three of his five references had ties to the OARC, and three of the five cases he listed as his work samples were attorney discipline matters.

In one instance, Large highlighted how, as the prosecuting attorney, he declined to throw the book at a lawyer who misled her firm about her clients. Although the lawyer could have been disbarred, her “unusually significant personal and emotional problems” resulted in a three-year suspension. Large, in his application, called this a “just outcome for this lawyer.”

Large was not too worried about heading into the application without his coach. He planned to conduct mock interviews, possibly hire a speech coach or turn to the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association if necessary. 

“If I don’t get nominated for the position, I’m sure Justice Hart and I will pick up again,” he added. 

‘It’s go time’

In late February, the Judicial Department sent out word that a judge on the Adams County Court would be stepping down, and applications were due in two weeks.

“It’s go time!!!” Kossie-Tonje wrote in an email, confirming that she would seek the position.

In the months since the coaching began, Kossie-Tonje had taken several steps toward improving her standing in the eyes of the judicial nominating commission and the governor’s office. She added flyers of her community service to her application. She attended legal events and made herself visible. Her cover letter advertised that she had overseen the busiest docket in the Adams County courthouse — a fact that had been previously buried in others’ letters of recommendation for her.







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A flyer advertising Magistrate Phelicia Kossie-Tonje’s presentation through Learn Your Rights in the Community (LYRIC), an educational program co-founded by two public defenders.


“That right there is the heart of the problem. Feeling strong enough to brag,” she said. “Don’t make them assume you’re good at this. Say it and explain it. There’s a line between bragging and selling.”

Kossie-Tonje’s heart was in the county court judgeship. She called it the “people’s court” because there are more self-represented litigants than at the district court level. She believed the position played to her strengths, which she exhibited in her protection order docket, of not solely telling people that they would not get want they wanted out of the court, but explaining why.

“My line with everybody is, ‘I hope you don’t come back because that means the problem resolved’,” she said. “And I try to make sure if they have to come back, they understand what they have to do when they fill out that paperwork so they don’t feel it’s a cat-and-mouse game. ‘OK, you don’t have it, bye!’ The next day, ‘Nope, you don’t have it, bye!’

“So, it’s always being ready to try to empower that person,” she said, “even though they lost.”







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Retired Denver County Judge Gary Jackson looks up to hills above his family’s historic cabin, named “Zephyr View,” just before a site visit by History Colorado members on Friday, March 25, 2022, at the historic Lincoln Hills Retreat in Gilpin County, Colo. The cabin, which is currently being restored and renovated, was built by Jackson’s great-grandfather William Pitts in the late 1920’s. The name Zephyr View refers to the proximity of the cabin to the cross-country California Zephyr passenger train that crosses over South Boulder Creek right in front of the cabin. (Timothy Hurst/The Denver Gazette)




Getting the call

Late March brought a mixed bag of news. First, the Judicial Department announced that Large and two other candidates were the finalists for the presiding disciplinary judge seat.

But on March 31, an email broadcast that the 17th Judicial District Nominating Commission had chosen three names for the Adams County Court vacancy. Kossie-Tonje was not on the list.

“Well, I guess I wasn’t the best candidate this time,” Kossie-Tonje said carefully on a phone call the following day. She paused and thought for a moment.

“Can I say something off the record?”

Back on the record, she vowed to keep trying for an appointment. As for the paradox that her extensive Dream Team 2.0 preparation resulted in her not going as far as her previous applications, Kossie-Tonje waved aside the notion that she had slid backwards.

“My application this time was tons better,” she said. “I don’t know what the other applications looked like, but for mine I felt very good about it. It looked more polished.”

The governor’s office told Colorado Politics in a statement that it could not talk about any specific candidates, and declined to go into detail about the selection process. The statement acknowledged that people may apply multiple times before being selected.

“This can occur because of personal improvement on behalf of the candidate or because the candidate had a different set of finalists to be compared to,” the statement said.

Jackson was disappointed in Kossie-Tonje’s non-selection, but analyzed the nominating commission’s choices. It was rare, he said, for a commission to send more than one Black candidate to the governor. Here, the commission had included on its list a Black man, specifically a Black magistrate whose name had also been before the governor multiple times. Kossie-Tonje was, in effect, competing with him for the shortlist, Jackson felt.

“His perseverance paid off. It was to Phelicia’s detriment,” he observed. “She did very, very well, but it was not her time and place.”

Finale

By mid-April, it was official. The Supreme Court decided Bryon Large would become the third-ever presiding disciplinary judge for Colorado. The transition to the job involved a lot of meetings. He talked with Arizona’s PDJ, the only person in the country with a job identical to his. He also scheduled a meeting with Lucero, the retiring PDJ, to discuss logistics.

“It really is a dream job,” he said, adding that he did not regret applying for the previous trial court positions because he would not let an opportunity pass him by. As to whether the Dream Team 2.0 program helped him land the PDJ job, Large was unsure.

“The discussions were so preliminary. ‘What do you think you need help with?’ kind of things. We didn’t really get into substance,” he said. “When Phelicia went through all of this, she had Judge Jackson there helping her out, being the person to call. I didn’t have that piece.”







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Adams County Magistrate Phelicia Kossie-Tonje’s final day in Division R. Bailiffs Jill Colby and Steven Moore are pictured with a sign from deputies and staff at the Adams County Detention Facility. Photo courtesy of Phelicia Kossie-Tonje


Meanwhile, it had been barely a month since Kossie-Tonje’s rejection before she spotted a new opportunity — but not in Adams County. This time, Kossie-Tonje was angling for an appointment to the Arapahoe County Court, the place where she first had success getting in front of the governor.

Although she previously emphasized the value in committing to the 17th Judicial District, Kossie-Tonje ultimately saw no harm in applying in the neighboring 18th Judicial District, where she had connections and received encouragement to apply — and where, she believed, very few Black women would enter the pipeline.

“If the goal is for the community to look like the bench, do you sit around and wait?” she asked. “Does that mean you don’t try to advance in a jurisdiction you have ties to?”

In a departure from past applications, Kossie-Tonje’s latest packet had a letter from an outgoing judicial officer in Adams County.

“I am confident that Magistrate Kossie will be a treasured resource to her colleagues, just as she has been to me and my fellow magistrates,” the letter read. “And I know that a continued diversified bench where women and people of color are actively involved in the administration of justice will strengthen the public’s confidence in our justice system.

“Respectfully submitted, Bryon M. Large.”

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