Friends, family and colleagues are mourning the loss of Sitka Magistrate Bruce Horton.
Horton died Friday after falling through the ceiling of his home while working in the attic. He was 62 years old.
Horton was hired as Sitka’s magistrate in 1990. Under Alaska law, a magistrate is supposed to handle everything from a dog-at-large ticket to the early proceedings in a homicide case. They don’t have to have a law degree, but Horton did.
“He could have sat on the court of appeals, or the Supreme Court. He was that bright, that smart, that driven, that attentive,” said Jude Pate, Sitka’s public defender.
Pate would appear before Horton sometimes as often as a dozen times a week, and he says Horton grew to know the community in his time on the bench. Defendants were more than a case number and a name to him, and Pate says Horton took time to carefully explain things to people, instead of simply moving them through the process. He says Horton was “fearless” in the courtroom, never afraid to do the right thing. Pate says he was also stern.
“And that went for my clients, it went for the police, it went for me,” he said. “But you need that in a courtroom. You need order, and he was not afraid to bring that.”
Pate says Horton played an important role in his own development.
“I did my first jury trial in front of him, I did my first evidentiary hearing – any hearing of any significance that I’ve ever done, I did it first and under the guidance of Magistrate Horton,” he said. “He basically helped me – made me – grow up as a lawyer.”
As it turns out, a lot of people have that to say about Horton, who worked as a training judge since 1994. Neil Nesheim is area court administrator for Southeast Alaska. He says Horton probably trained as many as 35 magistrates ranging from Yakutat to Craig.
“He really made sure that they honed their skills,” Nesheim said. “He wouldn’t let them get out of Sitka unless they could prove to him that they knew what they were talking about.”
He also traveled the panhandle, visiting smaller communities and reviewing the work of the magistrates he’d trained. Nesheim says some of those magistrates will come to Sitka to handle Horton’s docket until a new full-time magistrate can be hired. But beyond Horton’s busy schedule, Nesheim says Horton’s death is a painful loss for a close-knit staff.
“It’s hard to describe in terms of how we feel,” he said. “He put so much into this job, and so much into his work. Nobody could possibly replace him.”
Nesheim says outside of the courtroom, Horton was devoted to his family and an avid outdoorsman.
Dirk White would agree with that. He’s been a family friend since Horton moved to town in 1990. The Whites and the Hortons have children who are close in age, and the two families spend a lot of time together – fishing, hunting and camping, for example.
White remembers Horton as an excellent cook whose work in the kitchen, or at a campfire, was always made for sharing.
“I don’t think his recipes were able to be for less than 6 people,” White said.
Horton saw a lot of people in his day job who were having bad days. But White says the often depressing and sometimes stressful nature of his work never, ever translated into his life outside the courthouse. Horton had a great sense of humor about life and work.
“There are 1,001 lawyer jokes, of course,” White said. “Before he got his Lasik surgery, he’d misplace his glasses, and I’d say ‘Yeah, another case of blind justice.’ And he’d say ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I haven’t heard that one before.’”
The importance Horton placed on his family was not lost on those who knew him professionally, either. Sitka attorney Jim McGowan says Horton was a devoted father, and was “crazy about his wife, September.”
“When I’d be in his office and a call would come through from her, he would suddenly go from being all business, or all hunting/fishing guy talk, to just this cooing husband,” McGowan said. “God, you’d think he was in high school and this was his first girlfriend. He was crazy about that woman. It was real charming to see.”
In addition to his wife, September, Horton is survived by two sons. A memorial is planned for 2 p.m. Sunday at Centennial Hall. Those wanting to help can contact Paula Clayton at 738-8236.