Alaska News

Alaska Court System fires magistrate judge who wrote public letter criticizing Republican Party

The Alaska Court System fired the state’s longest-serving magistrate judge on Wednesday after he wrote a letter to the editor saying that the Republican Party “is actively trying to steer the U.S. into an authoritarian kleptocracy.”

The letter, published in December, was one of four that Seward magistrate George Peck has written to the Daily News in criticism of former President Donald Trump, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the Republican Party since 2019.

Peck did not state his judicial position in those letters, and no complaints against Peck have been filed in the past year, but Peck’s immediate supervisor, Anchorage Superior Court Judge William Morse, ordered the court system’s human resources department to investigate.

After the investigation, Morse said in a formal decision on Wednesday that Peck’s letter violated Alaska’s code of judicial conduct.

“As a magistrate judge, the public entrusts you to decide cases with the utmost fairness, independence and impartiality. The power of your own voice, even when expressed off the bench, can become inextricably tied to your position, especially in a small community where you are the sole judicial officer,” Morse said.

Peck will be replaced by a full-time, permanent magistrate judge serving both Seward and Homer, he said.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy was not contacted about the decision to fire Peck, and his deputy communications director said the governor’s office was unaware of Peck’s letter or the firing until contacted for this article.

Peck, 81, has been working as a magistrate judge since 1976. He retired from full-time work in 2016, but the court system kept him on a temporary, part-time basis.

Informed Wednesday that he would be fired on Friday, he submitted his resignation and worked his last day Thursday.

Peck said he doesn’t regret the letter and said he was just “stating a fact that the Republican Party tried to overturn the election, which I think most people agree on.”

He also doesn’t fault Morse’s decision.

“Clearly, they were justified in doing what they’re doing,” Peck said of his firing. “I just think they could have found a little better way to do it, but that’s up to them.”

“It’s like you had a tenant who’s been in there 46 years, paid the rent, never disturbed the neighbors, but they committed some technical foul and you’re kicking them out in two days,” he said.

Alaska’s Constitution intends judges to be apolitical and selected for merit.

Magistrate judges are the lowest-level officials in the Alaska Court System, overseeing traffic infractions, small-claims cases and some time-sensitive issues, such as search warrants and domestic violence cases.

They do not need to be lawyers and are appointed by a Superior Court judge, rather than the governor. Despite that difference, they must follow the same code of judicial conduct as higher-level judges. That code states, in part, that a judge must act in a way that does not “cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge.”

Another section states that a judge or candidate for appointment to judicial office shall not “publicly endorse or publicly oppose a candidate for any public office.” Dunleavy made his 2022 re-election campaign official in August.

The Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct does not handle complaints against magistrates, but its executive director, Marla Greenstein, told Peck in an email this week that if his letter “had been written by a state court judge, the commission would have recommended disciplinary action.”

She confirmed her statement in an interview Friday.

“While as a magistrate judge you may not directly hear cases involving the governor or the Republican Party, members of your community who would appear in front of you are likely supporters of both. Your letter was a public statement that you do not respect those entities,” she told Peck.

She concluded her message to him by saying that she hopes he can now enjoy his retirement.

Peck said he intends to do so.

“I love music. I love art. I just got back from a bike ride. So I got plenty to do and I’d like to be involved a little bit on climate change, getting our community to adapt. We’d like to make Seward a little bit more self sustainable and a little more energy efficient. There’s just a zillion things out there to do,” he said.

James Brooks

James Brooks was a Juneau-based reporter for the ADN from 2018 to May 2022.

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