Kingsbury looks back at 25 years on the bench; plans to retire at end of year

Superior Court Judge Suzanne Kingsbury plans to retire at the end of the year.
Bill Rozak/Tahoe Daily Tribune

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Judge Suzanne Kingsbury will miss being in the know.

Kingsbury has signed search warrants, has intimate knowledge of law enforcement operations and has dispensed justice for more than two decades in South Lake Tahoe.

She admittedly has learned “more than you ever wanted to know” about some people in the community.

But after 25 years, the superior court judge plans to retire at the end of the year. Her last day is expected to be Dec. 31.

“I’ll miss all the people, the lawyers, litigants, families of the people who come before me, staff, justice partners — you spend more time with these folks than you do with your own family,” Kingsbury said. “Many of these people I’ve worked with for a very long time.”

Kingsbury was the first woman elected to serve as a superior court judge in El Dorado County in 1996 and three years later became its first female presiding judge.

She has presided over civil, criminal, juvenile, family, appellate and probate matters as well as various collaborative courts and said a lot of cases are memorable in different ways.

A pair of cases that stood out Wednesday were for personal reasons as much as the seriousness of the cases.

During the Joseph Nissensohn case of 2013 where a jury supported the death penalty for the convicted triple murderer, including killing a South Lake Tahoe teenager, Kingsbury’s mother had surgery.

“The Nissensohn case was particularly challenging, they were cold cases, the remains were skeletal, it involved homicides in two separate counties and it lasted roughly eight months from start to finish,” Kingsbury said. “During the trial my mom, who at that time lived in Sonoma County, had back surgery and something went south … She was hospitalized for months.”

Kingsbury was her only relative in California and would visit when she could and would often talk with her on the phone and give updates about the well-known case. She said eight days after the guilty verdict was handed down on Halloween, her mother passed away.

She said the jury graciously agreed to be on hiatus through the holidays.

She also remembers the Ulysses Roberson case of 2010 where he was found guilty of second-degree murder for killing his 4-year old son in 1985.

Kingsbury remembers that well, not only because of the nature of the crime, but because it was her first trial after returning to work from a fall in 2009 that resulted in a concussion and permanent hearing loss.

She was on call and her pager went off during sleep hours while visiting her daughter in Roseville.

“So I didn’t wake up my husband, I got the pager, took my phone and went into the hallway,” Kingsbury said. “Well you’re in this sleepy stupor, not in super familiar surroundings. I fell down a stairwell while I’m on the phone talking to the dispatcher and the deputy and I go down the stairs, my head goes into a wall.”

Her head actually almost went through the wall. Kingsbury has a photo of the damaged drywall hanging on her office door as a reminder.

After spending the night in the hospital Kingsbury was released the next morning while experiencing concussion symptoms such as vomiting. Her husband drove her back up the mountain to Tahoe the next day and had to stop several times while Kingsbury fell sick. She visited her regular doctor as soon as she got back.

“My doctor said I could have died after going up in altitude,” Kingsbury said. “I was in a walker for six weeks and wasn’t sure if I’d be able to walk again. When I came back to work this was the first trial I did and it was a struggle.

“One of the things that happens when you have a concussion, is that you can get aphasia where you may be knowing what you want to say, but it doesn’t come out right,” she continued. “I had to explain to the jury that I’m not intoxicated. I had to give more information about my personal life than I normally would. To this day I have physical repercussions from that. That stands out because it was a really horrible circumstance, and because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go back to work. I thought I might have to retire.”

She didn’t realize right away that she had hearing loss. In court, she thought the old sound system needed to be upgraded. She had trained lawyers to look at her when they spoke so she could read their lips, something she says she does pretty well.

“They changed the sound system and I still couldn’t hear so I figured I’d better go get checked out,” she said.

The recent Caldor Fire also brought back memories of the Angora Fire in 2007 where she had a home burn. It didn’t get completely destroyed like many of her neighbors, but she said the landscape still hasn’t recovered.

Kingsbury grew up in Ohio and moved with her parents to California. After they divorced, she moved with her mom to Sacramento where she would graduate from high school and continue her education at McGeorge School of Law where she received a Juris Doctorate degree in 1982 while working 40-plus hours per week.

After admittance to the bar, she went into private civil practice until accepting a position as deputy district attorney with the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office in 1985. In 1990, she joined the El Dorado County Public Defender’s Office until her election to the bench in 1996.

During her tenure, Kingsbury has served on various committees and collaborated with justice partners to improve California’s court system on a statewide and local level, said a press release from the county superior court. She was the first person from El Dorado County appointed to sit on the Judicial Council, the policy making body of the California Courts (2004–2007), and from there she was appointed to serve on a multitude of committees tasked with addressing issues aimed at improving judicial performance and ethics, increasing access for self-represented litigants, and the application of new and existing laws and rules within the judicial branch.

In El Dorado County, due in large part to Kingsbury’s efforts, more services have been made available to self-represented litigants, including adding family law facilitators, expansion of the court’s self-help center to provide paralegal services, and its civil and family law dispute resolution programs.

Working with justice system partners and fellow judicial officers, Kingsbury brought to the county its first juvenile and adult drug courts, Behavioral Health Courts, Veteran’s Court and a DUI Court. In addition, in 2015, in partnership with the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians Tribal Court, and with El Dorado County, Kingsbury helped develop the state’s first joint jurisdiction court. Each of these courts is designed to improve outcomes and reduce recidivism.

Since 1985, Kingsbury has been active in community affairs, including serving as a member, officer and president of the Board of Directors for the South Lake Tahoe Women’s Center and a member of the Board of Directors of the Sierra Recovery Center, the Lake Tahoe Educational Foundation, and Hospice of the Lake.

She participates each year in educational events such as The Drug Store Project, Every 15 Minutes, and Teen Court. She was also an adjunct instructor in the Criminal Justice Program at Lake Tahoe Community College for over a decade.

Kingsbury could be California’s longest serving presiding judge of the superior court.

“It’s been 22 years,” she said.

Kingsbury said her time on the bench won’t be completely finished. She will probably go into the assigned judges program where she can provide relief for fellow judges and take on temporary assignments.

Kingsbury, who has three daughters all from marrying her husband, and two grandkids, said she and her husband may travel during retirement, but if they did, she envisions road trips to national parks and other areas of interest.

But she’s more focused on doing things around her home in South Lake Tahoe.

She said, “There are so many projects around my house, one of the goals is to every day or every week, tackle at least one of those projects. We’ll see.”

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