ITHACA, N.Y. — Two candidates — Seth Peacock and Dan Johnson — are running for the open Ithaca City Court Judge position.
Ithaca City Court handles small claims, landlord and tenant cases, criminal cases, traffic violations, city code violations and building code violations, mostly misdemeanor cases. The city court judge position is a 10-year term, which will begin January 1, 2021. The City of Ithaca currently has two judges. Judge Rick Wallace’s term is over in 2025.
Peacock has served as the other city court judge since December 2019. Mayor Svante Myrick appointed Peacock after former Ithaca City Court Judge Scott Miller filled the newly created third Tompkins County judge position. Peacock also served previously as a city court judge when Myrick appointed him on an interim basis in 2014. He ran to retain the spot in the 2014 Democratic Primary, but was defeated by Wallace. He then ran on the Working Families Party line in the same election. Peacock also ran in the 2013 Democratic Primary for Tompkins County Court Judge, but was defeated by Joseph Cassidy.
Peacock has worked as a criminal defense attorney, and he secured the acquittal of Cadji Ferguson on disorderly conduct charges. Peacock has been a member of the bar since 2005, and is a graduate of Cornell Law School. He has also volunteered on the Ithaca City School Board and BOCES Board.
During his time as judge, he said that he has developed the Ithaca wellness and recovery court team, composed of housing and addiction specialists, to help bolster the court.
Peacock has faced some controversy in the past. Earlier in his career, Peacock missed court appearances and arrived late or unprepared, causing him to be barred from two judges’ courtrooms, which was attributed to him having a large caseload. In 2014, he endorsed a gubernatorial candidate, which violated state rules for judges and judicial candidates.
“My judicial temperament is key,” Peacock said at a candidate forum June 1. “The legitimacy of the court system is based on how people are treated when they’re engaged with the system. My key focus every day is to treat people with dignity, respect and kindness.”
Peacock is the first and only person of color to serve on the bench in the Sixth Judicial District.
“It’s now 2020, and of all the hundreds of thousands of millions of people who have lived in that area, me, Seth Peacock, who frankly based on my background experience shouldn’t even be a lawyer, not to mention a judge, would be the first person of color to serve in this role,” he said. “It’s disturbing. But as strange as it is to be in this role, I feel very fortunate.”
He emphasized his commitment to connecting with community members. He said that any attorney can know the law, but what is more important is how he interacts with people who live in the community.
“In this time of crisis, where our criminal justice system has so many questions about its legitimacy, it’s important in our community, what we can do here, is to have somebody in there who has that credibility, has that legitimacy, that the people trust,” he said.
He said that one of the biggest challenges the court will face following the COVID-19 pandemic is the influx of landlord-tenant cases. Since many college students left Ithaca due to the pandemic, he said that there has been a three-month gap of landlords who were not able to file any complaints. His experience with these cases will benefit him in this scenario, should he continue in the position, he said.
Peacock has garnered a number of endorsements. Former Ithaca City Court Judges James Kerrigan and Judy Rossiter, former Tompkins County assistant district attorneys Gary Surdell and Brad Rudin, and 44 other Ithaca attorneys, all signed a letter of support for Peacock. Ed Kopko, who is running for Tompkins County District Attorney against incumbent Matthew Van Houten, also signed the letter.
Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, chair of the Tompkins Legislature, and J.R. Clairborne, former City of Ithaca common council member, also endorsed Peacock.
“What distinguishes Seth Peacock in this race is his grassroots connection with community members,” they wrote. “Ithaca needs a judge who knows and understands community.”
Johnson is currently a Tompkins County assistant district attorney. He has been with the office since 2006 and has worked in juvenile drug court, adult felony drug courts and Ithaca City Treatment Court.
He has worked as a defense attorney and prosecutor for 20 years in New York and Colorado. He attended the University of Colorado Law School and has been a member of the bar since 2005. Johnson has lived in Ithaca with his family since 2004.
Johnson was the prosecuting attorney for the case involving Jeremy Vann, in which the Tompkins County deputy was accused of attacking a woman he knew during a domestic dispute. Vann was fired and was sentenced to time in 2017.
Johnson was the other consideration for the temporary city court judge position that Peacock was eventually chosen for.
“I’m running for Ithaca City Court because I want to make sure that standards of excellence are upheld, and that we continue to make Ithaca as welcoming and open for all,” he said.
Johnson said his extensive experience in drug court is one of his main qualifications for the judge position.
“Drug court works because it works off of the relationship between the judge and the participants, and that’s a dynamic that’s at work anytime someone is in court,” he said. “And that experience will help me make sure that anyone who comes before me as a judge leaves feeling treated fairly, regardless of the outcome of their case.”
He emphasized that one of his assets is his knowledge of the law, both from a prosecution and defense perspective. He said that although he does not have much experience working with civil law, he is confident that he can apply what he knows to handle it appropriately.
“It’s more important than ever that judges are experts in the law, and frankly if i’m the judge, that’s what Ithaca City Court will get,” he said. “They’ll get a judge who comes to court prepared, who knows the law and because of his experience of handling both sides of things, he issues fair rulings. At the same time, I think there is some advantage for a judge, if not having a distance, at least having a perspective of not knowing everyone in that same regard because frankly, not everyone who comes to court is going to be the judge’s acquaintance or friend, and everyone, no matter where they come from, needs to be treated fairly.”
Johnson acknowledged the need for diversity on the bench. He also said that in order to ensure that justice is administered fairly, courts and judges need to increase the use of science and data when making decisions.
“As a white person, I know that I don’t have the experience that my neighbors who are people of color do, and I know that as a white person I need to speak up,” he said “We need to address these things, and we need to do better than we’ve done. In terms of the criminal justice system, we need to do better as well.”
He said that he plans to work closely with clerks to ensure that there is a smooth workflow in the courts, especially during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My years in court, in regular court, in drug court, have shown me how people are affected by what happens in court, by the way that the judge talks to them, by the way the judge affords them an opportunity to speak, by the way he addresses their attorney, and because of all that experience and because I do know the law extremely well, that’s how I would serve the community,” he said.
New York State is holding its primary elections for state and local offices on June 23. Eligible voters can vote via absentee ballot due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and those ballots must be postmarked by June 23. If voters choose to cast their ballot in person, Tompkins County has early voting from June 13 to June 21, and in-person voting will take place on June 23. Other elections on the democratic primary City of Ithaca ballot are for the New York State 125th Assembly District, as well as Tompkins County district attorney.