Kuhse is Cool in New Role as City Prosecutor 7/21/16 07/20/16 11:45:07 PM
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Douglas County District Court Judge Shelly R. Stratman swears in Matt Kuhse as Omaha’s newest city prosecutor. Kuhse asssumed his role June 6.
Kuhse is Cool in New Role as City Prosecutor
By Andy Roberts
The Daily Record
The move may have been a short one, but you have to figure it is a big step. Matt Kuhse moved up a flight of stairs from his role as a deputy Douglas County attorney into his new role as Omaha’s city prosecutor. He replaces David Smalheiser.
Kuhse is an Omaha native, born and raised in the city. His parents are Mike and Mary. His father and one brother are engineers, while his mother has a degree in zoology. “So, being a lawyer makes me kind of a black sheep,” Kuhse said.
Kuhse graduated from Marquette University in 1997 and followed up his undergraduate degree by attending the Creighton University School of Law. He earned his juris doctor in 2001.
“While in law school, I was on the Moot Court Board and was selected to be on the advanced trial practice team,” he recalled. “I passed the bar in September 2001 and began working in the Douglas County Attorney’s office that same month.”
It was in May 1999, when Kuhse was finishing his first year of law school, that current Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, then-chief deputy in the county attorney’s office, offered him a job as a law clerk. It wasn’t exactly something that was topping the future prosecutor’s wish list.
“At the time, I actually did not want to be assigned to the criminal division,” Kuhse recalled. “I was more interested in civil practice.”
But Kleine asked Kuhse to give the criminal side a chance, with the caveat that if he didn’t really like it, he would be moved back to the civil division.
“Well, I ended up loving it because I stayed in the criminal division until June 2016,” Kuhse said.
Those days as a law clerk in the county attorney’s office, bring back some great memories as Kuhse recalls the many amazing opportunities he was provided.
“I was allowed to sit in and assist some great prosecutors during trials, including Leigh Ann Retelsdorf and Shelly Stratman (both now Douglas County District Court Judges) and Don Kleine,” Kuhse said. “Watching prosecutors such as those three was a great influence on me and helped me become the lawyer I am today.”
Kuhse fondly remembers the time when Kleine allowed him to argue on behalf of the State of Nebraska before the Nebraska Supreme Court. He was still a law clerk.
After he passed the bar exam in September 2001, then-Douglas County Attorney Jim Jansen offered Kuhse a job in the domestic violence prosecution unit. The job involved prosecuting misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence in the Douglas County Court.
“I stayed in that unit until I was moved to the felony division in September 2003,” Kuhse said.
In January 2006, Kuhse returned to the domestic violence unit, where he served as supervisor handling felony domestic violence cases. Kuhse remained in that position until March 2011, when he was named lead attorney for what was then the new felony motor vehicle prosecution unit. He remained in that position until he left the office in June of this year to become city prosecutor.
During his time in the county attorney’s office, Kuhse prosecuted motor vehicle homicide cases, domestic violence assaults, narcotics cases, and serious drunk driving cases.
“I also prosecuted a number of homicide cases, including the prosecution of Christopher Edwards for the death of Jessica O’Grady, and Patrick Bauldwin for the cold case homicide of Pasinetta Prince,” Kuhse said.
Kuhse also serves as a member of the House of Delegates for the Nebraska State Bar Association, and has served on the Domestic Violence Coordinating Council.
“I was awarded the Outstanding Law Enforcement Award from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 2008 and the Community Service Award from the Domestic Violence Council in 2009,” he said.
With all that going for him, a person might wonder why Kuhse would leave the county attorney’s office.
Kuhse said it wasn’t an easy decision to pursue the city prosecutor’s job once he learned the position was going to be opened up to people outside that office. “I gave a lot of thought to applying. I really enjoyed my work in the Douglas County Attorney’s office,” he said. “Some of my closest friends work there, and I was mentored by a great number of lawyers and judges, like Shelly Stratman, Leigh Ann Retelsdorf, Don Kleine, Jim Jansen, Tom Riley, Jerry Moran, Pat Mullen and Tom Otepka.” That, he recalled, gave him the opportunity to try a lot of cases and do “a lot of good.”
Ultimately, however, Kuhse explained, “I felt that I could do a really good job at being the city prosecutor, and I looked on the job as a new opportunity. I considered the job to be an extension and expansion of the work I had done in the county attorney’s office.”
Kuhse stressed that he did not get into public service to get rich.
“Nobody who works in public service does. I have devoted my career to public service because I like it,” he said. “Being a prosecutor, in my mind, is one of the highest callings a lawyer can have. I will never forget what Judge Moran told me when I started out doing felonies: the prosecutor is the most powerful person in the criminal justice system, but you have to use that power maturely and never abuse it.”
Kuhse said those words always are in the back of his mind in every decision he makes as a prosecutor.
“I have tried very hard to follow that advice,” he said.
While the role of city prosecutor does have its similarities to being a deputy county attorney, it naturally has its inherent differences. “I have become less of a trial lawyer and more of an administrator,” he acknowledged. “Although I still have appeared in court a couple of times, my time is primarily spent running the office, attending meetings, and representing the city within various community groups.”
“I have to give a huge round of applause to my secretary, Pam Cardenas, who has gently guided me through the struggles I have faced in my early weeks,” he said. “The lawyers and staff in this office are kind of the unsung heroes of the courthouse.”
Those attorneys, Kuhse said, handle hundreds of cases a week and make it look easy.
“While the more serious crimes get the headlines and attention, it’s the misdemeanor cases that affect more people and their lives.”
Kuhse believes in contributing more to the community beyond his public service job.
“I have two things that I always help out on,” he said. “First, for the past decade or so, I have helped out the Nebraska State Bar Foundation with judging the high school mock trial competition. I really enjoy watching these students put on a trial, and I am always amazed at how well the students do presenting their case.”
For the past five or six years, he has also given courthouse tours for the Omaha Law League, where he helps guide students from local grade schools through tours of the courthouse and the city-county building.
“I enjoy taking the students around and showing them the buildings and talking about its history,” Kuhse said.
Asked about the biggest challenge the legal field faces today, Kuhse said, from a prosecutor’s perspective, it is dealing with the public’s mistrust in and suspicion of the criminal justice system. Many people, he believes, are “disenchanted” by what they have seen. “I feel that it is part of my job to help to restore some of that trust and make people feel confident and proud of the American criminal justice system,” Kuhse said.
First on his list of possible ethical issues to quash: Matt Kuhse has been married to Marcela Keim for more than a decade – also known as the Honorable Marcela A. Keim of the Douglas County Court.
Kuhse said he was happy to be asked the question about a potential conflict of interest, adding a lot of people have weighed in on it. He points out that, first, his wife never would have applied for the county court position five years ago without first checking on the issue, as he was in the county attorney’s office and deputies in that office regularly appear before her – including those whom he, at the time, supervised.
Secondly, Kuhse said, he also checked when the city prosecutor’s position came open, conferring with Mark Weber from the Nebraska Counsel for Discipline’s office, his old boss, Don Kleine, and Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley.
“After researching this issue, there is not a conflict of interest,” Kuhse said. “Simply put, I cannot appear before my wife in court.”
As far as Judge Keim is concerned, “she is very happy for me and very proud of me,” Kuhse said. “It is funny that I should become the city prosecutor, because that was always a career aspiration for her before deciding to become a judge. She put a lot of time into considering whether to apply for the open position five years ago, because she also really wanted to be the city prosecutor. It’s funny how things work out.”
So, those dinner-table discussions that could have been extremely interesting? At least in the Keim/Kuhse household, they’re not happening.