When I first saw Patrick Pekin walk out of the Mendocino Volunteer Fire Station as I pulled into the parking lot I didn’t know what he looked like and guessed he was some college kid visiting the station for a term paper or something. Up close with his grayish hair and short straight-across bangs he looked sort of like a classic depiction of a young Julius Caesar – though modern science has debunked the theory that in real life Caesar had blue eyes. Pekin’s patrician appearance notwithstanding, he is almost alarmingly cheerful, eloquent, and proudly populist, qualities he hopes will work in his favor in his second run for a Mendocino County Superior Court judgeship — this time for Judge John Behnke’s seat when he retires next year.
Pekin lost his first run for the Court to current Judge Keith Faulder in 2016 by a mere 154 votes. “It’s a number I’m not gonna forget,” he smiled. He said that in retrospect he was of course disappointed to lose but proud of both his and Faulder’s 2016 campaigns. “It was not a mud-slinging campaign and I am proud of how it was done,” he said. “I think voters appreciated that.” This time around he’s been endorsed by Judge Faulder and Sheriff Tom Allman and is so far running unopposed. If he remains unopposed or beats an opponent by more than 50 percent in the March primary he will be declared the winner in November’s general election.
The fact that nearly 90 percent of state judges are elected in the US (federal judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for life) is a subject in itself, one that the New York Times took a run at a few years back. In its report the National Center for State Courts was quoted as saying, “In the rest of the world the usual selection emphasizes technical skill and insulates judges from the popular will, tilting in the direction of independence,” which, as we see here in this country, is not the case and often produces slews of wrong-headed and ultimately illegal decisions by judges forced to pander to fickle political winds and voters without a jot of judicial knowledge or experience.
Citing the rigorous French judicial model that requires judges to spend years learning about the law and the courts, Cornell University School of Law professor Mitchell Lasser said of that system, “You have people who actually know what they’re doing.” The rest of the world is, in Lasser’s opinion, “vaguely aghast” at the notion of electing judges, a process he describes as “both insane and characteristically American.” According to the article only two other countries besides the US elect judges, who in nearly all countries are more akin to professional career civil servants than politicians who have to kow-tow to the whims of the general voting public.
Pekin said he believes that the greatest disconnect between the laws and reality resides squarely at the US Supreme Court, where he says none of the justices has ever presided over a trial. “They decide whether a trial is fair even though they’ve never done one,” he said. “Nobody there has dealt with a witness, a meth addict, a liar, or a thief.” Pekin sees this lack of prior trial experience as unique to the high court and is like asking if anyone other than another heart surgeon could fairly or accurately assess whether a heart surgery had gone awry.
Pekin believes that relatively small counties like Mendocino are less prone to these legal pitfalls and have higher standards of justice (and are thus more inherently fair) than larger counties where he worked shortly after graduating from the UC Hastings College of the Law, which he said is affectionately referred by its students to as “Tenderloin Tech” because of its proximity to that impoverished, drug-riddled, and high-crime area of San Francisco.
As one example, Pekin said, “When you’re a judge in San Jose you’re a cog. You’re middle management and that’s what you do.” He added that courts in big cities or counties with hundreds of judges “take on a factory kind of feel… A judge sees a person he doesn’t know and will never see again. They give [defendants] the rote speech about having to do better, blahblahblah and that’s all it is…blahblahblah: the words are empty.”
Pekin said he also believes that a judge who knows his or her community and many of both its first-time and chronic defendants gives judges the opportunity to consider their cases with greater, individualized depth and understanding. He hypothesized that a judge might say, for instance, that “I know you, I know your parents, you’ve stumbled but now you’re on the right track and I want you to stay on that right track.” Pekin denies that this familiarity creates a defense-oriented culture as in, for example, San Francisco.
Back in Mendo’s case, he said that “It works both ways,” adding that he’s also seen judges “put the brakes on” agreements by the DA and the Public Defender that he or she thinks are too lenient. “Mendocino County hasn’t been infected by this [partisanship] yet,” he said, adding that believing in the system and acting honorably are two factors that can lessen both partisanship and rancor.
Pekin said that there is also less partisanship in the Mendocino County Superior Court and courts in other small counties than in large counties because of size and the local culture. He offered Orange County as an example, where he said it would be unthinkable for either a prosecutor or a public defender to change sides.
Both Pekin and his wife Amanda, with whom he shares a private criminal practice based in Fort Bragg, have worked both sides of the street, as did his father, who was a DA before joining a private practice. His dad was drafted into the U.S. Army out of UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law in the late 60s during the bloody ramp-up of the Vietnam War, and served in the A Shau Valley, site of a bloody battle in 1966 that left, officially, more than 2,000 “belligerents” and more than 400 Americans either killed or wounded. “He came back with some problems, and has been going to AA for 40 years,” Pekin said. His personal philosophy about alcohol, a legal drug responsible for more deaths than all illegal drugs put together: “Treat it carefully.” As with all addictions, he added that “You never know what your magic bullet is.”
Conceding that in larger counties a greater percentage of judges comes from the prosecution side, and, therefore, that “the DA has more sway,” Pekin said he doesn’t believe this to be true in this county, and that both sides “should abhor partisanship equally. Here there is no dominant force, there’s a lot more parity,” he said.
As to what the immediate future holds, Pekin says he’ll continue to practice criminal law privately with his wife Amanda, who is also a Hastings graduate.
They have twin five-year-old boys and a seven-year-old son. If he wins the race and he does become judge, Pekin said that his wife will continue their joint practice but handle only local issues, at least for the time being while the kids are so young. He will also continue as a volunteer with the Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department, which he says he loves.
Part of it’s the camaraderie; part of it’s the clarity of the job. “You come from an environment like being a lawyer and you don’t know jack,” he said of being a volunteer firefighter. “[As a firefighter] everything is clear and you follow orders – pick up the ax, pick up the hose.” He said that his fellow volunteers have become like family.
One uphill battle rooted in today’s culture is embedded in the nature of the judicial system itself but exacerbated by partisanship: the need to blame someone or something for every misfortune that comes down the pike. What used to be considered accidents or simply bad luck have made their way into courtrooms where they will become winners or losers. Pekin believes that Mendo’s collegial environment can at least blunt some of this blame-game national trend, which mirrors national politics.
“It’s not always true that there’s somebody to blame,” he said.
Finally, Pekin said he plans to follow a piece of advice from a retired judge to “be careful not catch the judge’s disease.” The judge’s disease comes about when the weight of a judge’s decisions go to his or her head and breed a sense of infallibility. “You start to feel infallible and forget that you don’t know everything, that you might have to go back to capture a nuance that has been lost.”