Supreme Court says judge shouldn't be reprimanded for jailing witness

Posted: Sunday, June 23, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Longtime Bethel Superior Court Judge Dale Curda admits he made a mistake when he jailed a witness so she would be sober to testify for a trial back in 1995.

But the Alaska Supreme Court decided Friday that Curda's error was not so serious that he should be disciplined.

''We never disputed the fact that the judge, in hindsight, should have handled the matter differently,'' said Jonathon A. Katcher, one of Curda's lawyers.

The Supreme Court, he said, went along with his argument that, ''in essence, you have a judge who makes a single legal error that is not evidence of a pattern or practice of violating people's rights.''

The court's unanimous ruling differs from the recommendation of the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct. That panel said 18 months ago that Judge Curda should be reprimanded.

However, the eight-member panel was sharply divided, with three members favoring a public reprimand and two a private reprimand. Three members concluded he had not violated the judicial code.

Curda opposed a private reprimand and asked the Supreme Court to rule on the matter.

All judges make legal errors, the justices noted. The independence of the judiciary is threatened, the opinion says, if judges ''must ask not 'which is the best choice under the law as I understand it,' but 'which is the choice least likely to result in judicial discipline?'''

Justices cited rulings from other state supreme courts and reached the conclusion that ''because Judge Curda's legal errors were neither willful nor part of a pattern of misconduct, we conclude that they did not constitute ethical misconduct and therefore that he should not receive any sanctions.''

His actions did compromise the rights of the defendant in the case, the court reaffirmed.

Wilfred Raphael of Mountain Village was sentenced to 15 years after being convicted of kidnapping and assault. He appealed the conviction on the basis that jailing the woman witness amounted to coercion that tainted her testimony.

The Supreme Court threw out that conviction in 2000. The court on Friday reiterated its conclusion that ''Judge Curda did violate (the woman's) right to notice and a meaningful hearing, as well as Raphael's due process rights and right to be present at every stage of his trial.''

Curda has been a Superior Court judge in Bethel since he was appointed by Gov. Steve Cowper in 1989. He moved to Bethel in the 1970s and taught school there before getting his law degree and serving as a lawyer and district attorney in the community, said Katcher, his lawyer.

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