Opinions

Magistrate’s firing sends an improper, chilling message

Superior Court Judge William Morse’s firing of Magistrate George Peck was unwarranted and unkind (for its lack of expressing gratitude for the magistrate’s four decades of service). It shows a lack of contextual understanding, as well as itself creating an appearance of bias that it sought to quash.

I have had dozens of cases before Magistrate Peck. I do not know him on a personal level and have never had any exchanges with him apart from during official court proceedings. He is a professional acquaintance and not (yet) a friend. I have always told my clients that they will get a fair shake from the magistrate, that while he always shows deference to the prosecutors and police, he cares about all people in his courtroom equally. Defense lawyers. Prosecutors. Cops. Victims. Defendants.

I write this with 43 years of private practice behind me and direct experience with Magistrate Peck. I have practiced in nearly every courthouse in Alaska, before close to 100 judicial officers over my years of service. George Peck stands among the finest of those judges. It’s not that he has accorded me any special or favorable rulings. In fact, I recently expressed to a client in a close case we had, that I expected the magistrate to give default deference to the state and police officer. I have disagreed with his rulings before, but I have always respected them. That is the mark of an excellent judicial officer who discharges his duties without bias or favoritism.

Judge Morse and the Commission on Judicial Conduct misapplied the Rules of Judicial Conduct with respect to the contents and meaning of Magistrate Peck’s letters. The relevant rule is hardly black-and-white. There are exceptions to a judge’s not being able to make public political commentary. In the overall context of things, Mr. Peck said that the Republican Party, headed in Alaska by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, is supporting those who claim the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” and that Donald Trump really won the election. Under the judicial rules of conduct, a judicial officer can speak out about falsehoods, even if political in nature. The subject of Mr. Peck’s commentary is not open to any reasonable interpretation: The election was not fraudulent, and those who claim it was -- including many in the Republican Party -- pose a substantial danger to our democratic republic and an affront to its ideals. Mr Peck was not commenting about general political philosophy or general opinion but about a specific issue of falsehood.

In the greater context, Judge Morse and the Commission on Judicial Conduct overlook that U.S. Supreme Court Justices -- appointed for life and impossible to get rid of but through the unwieldy mechanism of impeachment -- have spoken at the Federalist Society, a national association compromised of absolutist conservative Republicans. For a justice to speak at such an assembly lends imprimatur and a stamp of approval of those generalized political opinions and philosophies. Yet there has been no punishment or official action that such a revealing of personal views is punishable by something as severe as a loss of career.

The irony is inescapable: Judge Morse’s firing of Magistrate Peck lends an appearance of impropriety and sends a terrible and chilling message to the public and other state employees: If you say anything negative about the governor or the Republican Party, you will be fired. This is all the more pernicious given Mr. Dunleavy’s insisting in his first days of office that state legal employees sign a loyalty oath.

Neither Judge Morse nor the commission meaningfully acknowledged Judge Peck’s contribution to the community. He is revered by court employees, who live in the town. I have never heard anything but positive comments from prosecutors. Mr. Peck has always held the needs of the community to be paramount, and he has devoted 45 years to serving Seward — fairly, honestly and without bias or favoritism.

Thank you, Magistrate Peck, for four-plus decades of impartial, loving service. You are one of the very best. Seward is lucky to have you, in your capacity as an administrator of justice and as human being who cares for everyone in town, not just those who aren’t Republican. If I’m ever in Seward, I’ll look you up to thank you personally.

David Mallet has been an Alaska attorney-at-law since 1978.

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said the Alaska Judicial Council was involved in applying the Rules of Judicial Conduct. It was the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct.

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