By CRAIG SMITH
People often assume that one of the hardest things about being a judge is sending people to prison. “That’s not even close,” said the Honorable Stephen Kroyer, retired Napa County Superior Court Judge. “The law is very specific when it comes to sentencing,” he said. “There are guidelines for the amount of time given based on the crime that’s been committed. Sentencing a convicted criminal is fairly straightforward.”
The hardest part of the job, in his experience, was child custody issues. “Those were extremely difficult. The decisions I made as a judge had immense consequences in children’s lives, and I may have only gotten to spend 15 or 20 minutes with their parents. That could keep me awake at night. ”
Kroyer was an Army brat, born in Fort Riley, Kansas, one of four children of an Army surgeon. The family relocated every three years or so, in moves that spanned the globe. Kroyer attended three high schools before graduating in Orange County. His father made college plans for his son when Kroyer was still a high school junior living in Okinawa.
“Dad read an article that called Rice University in Houston the ‘Harvard of the South.’ Rice had a large endowment, and tuition was free. Dad made up his mind then and there. ‘That’s where you are going.’”
Like many kids, Kroyer wanted to be a cop while growing up, but as he got older, he became interested in the film industry. “I wanted to be behind the camera, not in front of it.” The inner workings of film appealed to his fastidious, organized, technical side. Upon graduation, Kroyer stayed in Houston and went to work for the local NBC affiliate. Within two years he was the cinematographer, in charge of lighting and cameras. His next move was to a small film studio in Houston. Kroyer was moving up rapidly, loved everything about the field and, by 1974, looked forward to a career in Hollywood or New York. But then, as Kroyer described with a solemn look, he underwent a life changing event. His seventeen-year-old sister, who was living in Southern California, became the victim of a very violent crime.
In the aftermath of the crime against his sibling, Kroyer made the decision to become a prosecutor, with the goal of becoming a judge. Within months, he left Houston, moved to California, and got a job that, unlike the film industry, promised a steady income. He spent four years in night school getting his law degree, and passed the Bar in 1978. Prosecutor’s positions were hard to come by, and Kroyer spent a year in private practice in Santa Rosa. In 1979, he got the prosecutor’s job he wanted; here in Napa.
As a prosecutor, Kroyer was tough, “a real law and order guy,” said Sheila Daugherty, Executive Director of the Wolfe Center. “His job was to convict some of the people I was trying to advocate for, and he was gung-ho. But he is incredibly bright, compassionate and fair.” Daugherty said that, while things could get heated, Kroyer never lashed out at anyone or became defensive. “He is a class act. I adore him.”
Kroyer’s boyhood dream of being a police officer surfaced again in 1984. He’d run for and lost a seat to become a judge, and thought it was time for a change. “I guess I had a mid-life crisis,” he said, smiling. Officer Kroyer suited up as a Napa cop for a year. He enjoyed it, but missed the law more than he expected. He went back to being a DA, still hoping to become a judge. It took thirteen years to realize that dream. Judge Kroyer took the oath of office in 1997 and stayed until his retirement fourteen years later.
Kroyer reflects that being a judge was hard work. “I worked seven days a week, twelve hour days for the first six months,” he said. “The job is so big and complicated. You don’t just specialize in one area of the law, you have to take every case that comes your way.” While prosecutors are advocates, judges must remain neutral. “You have to reserve judgment and can’t let your own values get in the way.”
Napa Police Chief Richard Melton got to know Kroyer while working with him on the Criminal Justice committee, a mix of city and county law enforcement and judicial representatives who discuss changes impacting the legal system. “Because of his law enforcement and judicial background, he had a good grasp of the issues and dynamics,” said Melton. “He is principled, ethical and family oriented. He does things because he really cares. As a judge, he based his decisions on the person standing before him as well as the crime committed.”
Since retiring, Kroyer has spent a lot of time working with The Kiwanis Club of Napa. “I interviewed all the clubs. What made me decide on Kiwanis is that they are hands-on active. Building playgrounds with Jim Roberts and everybody else in the club looked like a splendid way to do things.” He’s volunteered for Auction Napa Valley, Hands Across The Valley, the Boys and Girls Club and the Volunteer Center as well.
“Steve is always willing to volunteer,” said Mayor Jill Techel. “He doesn’t stand to the side and give directions; he rolls up his sleeves and does the work that needs to be done. Now that he’s retired and has time, he gives it freely.”
Kroyer and wife, Janet, have been married since 1987. Of everything that he’s been part of, he is most proud of his two kids, Lindsay and Kevin, and their accomplishments. “They never needed help from Mother or Father. They are self-motivated, great kids.” He is also proud to be part of Napa, which he says leads the way in many areas. “In a short, twenty-year period, we went from having no women judicial officers to having five out of eight. That may be a state record. Isn’t that impressive in little old Napa?”