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Bolser retiring after eight years on the bench in Alpena, Montmorency counties

News Photo by Julie Riddle Judge Benjamin Bolser presides over his final Alpena hearing as 26th Circuit Judge in Alpena on Monday.

ALPENA — Decisions are easy when you know you’re doing the right thing, said Benjamin Bolser, retiring next week after eight years on the bench in Alpena and Montmorency counties.

On Friday, Bolser will hang up his robe — three robes, actually, one for Alpena County, one for Montmorency County, and one at home that he’s used so much he’s worn holes in the elbows, Bolser said on Monday as he finished his last day presiding over Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court courtroom.

The probate judge in Montmorency County since Jan. 1, 2013, Bolser occasionally pinch-hit in Alpena courtrooms in between hearings at the Montmorency County courthouse, where he also handled divorce, custody, and district dockets.

In November 2019, Bolser was appointed chief judge of the 26th Circuit and 88th District courts, both of which span both counties, and both counties’ probate courts. Until February of 2020, he bustled between Alpena and Atlanta, handling court duties in both counties.

The pace slowed some after Ed Black, then Alpena County prosecutor, was appointed circuit court judge in Alpena, although Bolser continued presiding over some cases on most Alpena court days.

Just after Black assumed the judgeship, COVID-19 hit the area and temporarily shut down courts.

“And it’s been Zoom ever since,” Bolser said.

During the past year, local courts have kept in stride with courts statewide, often outpacing other courts in providing public access and keeping hearings flowing despite technology glitches, closed jails and prisons, and learning a new way of doing court on the fly.

He’s always figured he’d stay on the bench until he was older, Bolser said, but the last few years have been exhausting, and he wants to start enjoying retirement.

The judge started his working career as a carpenter, for 13 years running a building supply company, pounding nails, and constructing cabinets in Lewiston.

His mom convinced him to go to law school so he and several other family members could take over the family business, an abstract company in Atlanta.

That law degree led in 1994 to a part time position in the Montmorency County Prosecutor’s Office, working for now-prosecutor Vicki Kundinger.

After a time, the two switched places, with Bolser taking over as prosecutor while Kundinger worked in the office part time.

Bolser transitioned into private practice in 2002, and in 2006 he ran for probate judge.

Losing that election was the best thing that could have happened, Bolser said, because he wasn’t ready for the job.

In 2012 Bolser ran again, and the judgeship was his. It remains his until Friday, when he heads for a retirement where, he said, “I’ve got wood to cut, fish to catch, and golf balls to lose.”

Court staff celebrated his last day presiding over Alpena cases with a few plates of cheese and crackers and a chance to say thanks for a job well done.

Being the person in the black robe doesn’t always make you popular, Bolser said. If he leaves a divorce hearing with both sides mad at him, he knows he’s probably done a good job. Being liked can’t be the important part of being a judge, though, he said.

“You do good things for people,” Bolser said. “You don’t seem like you’re doing good things, but you’re helping people out.”

Judges have to make the tough decisions, but they also get to reunite parents with their children and nudge people onto a better path in life, Bolser said.

The Montmorency County veterans court, which he helped start in 2016, is a point of pride for Bolser. Dozens of people who served their country and came back hurt emotionally have graduated from the court with a chance to get the help they need, and he’s glad he got a chance to be a part of their healing, Bolser said.

If he had a magic wand and unlimited resources, he’d boost mental health resources in the area, get people to stop using drugs, and add a body of employment that would pay above poverty wages, with enough jobs for everyone who wanted one.

Until such a time, he’ll head for his fishing pole and a well-deserved break. It would take a bulldozer to move him out of Montmorency County, he said, and he’d be open to guest-judging once in a while, but he has no intention of going back to private practice.

“It’s called retirement,” Bolser said.

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