Two long-time figures from either side of Ithaca’s criminal justice system are vying for a temporary spot as a judge in the City of Ithaca, and the city will soon announce its choice between Tompkins County Assistant District Attorney Daniel Johnson and Ithaca attorney Seth Peacock.
Whoever is chosen for the position will serve until the election is held next year. The spot on the bench opened when former city judge Scott Miller was elected to the newly-created third Tompkins County Court judge’s seat. Johnson and Peacock were the only applicants for the position. Though the city does not normally provide such application materials through FOIL requests, it opted to this time because whoever permanently holds the spot will be chosen via election anyway.
Both Johnson and Peacock are quite familiar with the area, having practiced law here for several years; Peacock as a single defense attorney since 2005, and Johnson with the DA’s office since 2006. Johnson has specialized in felony prosecution and drug cases since arriving in Tompkins County, previously working in a Syracuse law office as a defense attorney and in Fort Collins, Colorado in the DA’s office there as well. Peacock has worked as a defense attorney while serving temporary stints as a judge at both the city and county levels; residents will recognize him most recently for his successful defense of Cadji Ferguson, who was acquitted of charges brought against him after the police brutality incident on the Commons.
According to the state court system’s Attorney Grievance Committee, which tracks official misconduct complaints and discipline, neither Johnson nor Peacock have been publicly disciplined by the committee, and both are in good standing with the system. Complaints are kept confidential unless a public reprimand is handed down by the committee. The applications for both candidates acknowledged that they had, at least once, been “the subject of any proceeding, inquiry or investigation by any professional association.” The answers have been redacted; and while Peacock declined to discuss his answer to the question, citing confidentiality, Johnson said he believed it was the result of a complaint that arose over what someone claimed was an unfair plea deal. Nothing further came of the complaint.
Peacock said he thought he could bring integral prior experience to the position, considering his previous service on the bench, and that if chosen he would emphasize not allowing someone’s mistakes to define the rest of their lives. His application includes a letter of support signed by 44 local lawyers and judges, and emphasized his prior work to facilitate incarceration reduction programs.
“The Court is just one part of how we collectively address people’s behavior and life challenges. In my almost 20 years in Ithaca I have developed deep ties and relationships,” Peacock said. “Ithaca is fortunate to have a strong social service network and a collective philosophy that recognizes and supports innovative programs and partnerships to address community challenges. As Judge, I will use the relationships that I’ve developed in our community to creatively link defendants with these services and supports to positively influence outcomes for all citizens.”
Peacock is not unfamiliar to the bench, as he served as an interim city court judge in 2014. He then ran in the election for the position in November of that year but was defeated by current Ithaca judge Rick Wallace. During that race, it was reported that Peacock had been temporarily banned by two different judges in Tompkins County for repeated tardiness or missed court appointments for clients assigned to him by the Tompkins County Assigned Counsel program, which provides free courtroom attorney services to people who can’t afford them otherwise. Judge David Banfield in the Town of Ulysses and Judge M. John Sherman of Tompkins County Court and Family Court both reprimanded Peacock in 2011 and 2007, respectively, temporarily barring him from their courtrooms. Peacock confirmed that he is not currently banned from any courtrooms and has not had any similar incidents in the time since, and blamed the incidents on overwork and being on his own at the time.
“Having my mistakes and shortcomings aired publicly was a humbling, but nonetheless valuable experience,” Peacock said. “I learned from and improved myself professionally as a result of these mistakes. People who come before the Court need to know that the judge is not perfect and that stumbles in life are part of the challenges that everyone faces. The message I bring from this experience is that you don't have to let a mistake define you, you can use it to make a better future for yourself, for your family and for your community.”
The supervising attorney of the Assigned Counsel program, Lance Salisbury, said that since he has been leading the program, he has not had any hesitation to assign cases to Peacock, who remains involved with the program. Peacock said if he is selected as the interim judge, he would run for election when the vote is held in November 2020, though he would not commit to running if he isn’t selected. Johnson said he would be running regardless of the outcome of the selection process.
Johnson, on the other hand, comes from the prosecutorial side of the law. He said part of what motivated him to join that side of the justice system was a sense of pride he received from seeking justice for victims of crimes. He mentioned the same in his application for the position, in which he highlights what he believes is his ability to balance the two objectives of public safety and reducing harms of the criminal justice system.
“These experiences equip me to work as a judge to maximize the potential of the court system to rninimize incarceration while still protecting the public,” he wrote.
As a judge, he said, he knows the scope of his job would be wider than that of a prosecutor, but he believes it comes down to the same nexus point of searching for the most beneficial results for all involved.
“My proudest work is the work we do with victims,” Johnson said. “Those are the people who wind up in the criminal justice system, generally through no fault of their own. [...] One thing I always tell victims in a case is that the criminal justice system rarely gives folks a moment where it’s all better than it was before a crime occurred. But it’s important that when we work with people in the system, to treat them fairly and with respect and to get the best outcome of a case, and that goes for both victims and defendants. For a judge, the job is broader.”