Sacramento judge denies ‘disgracing the American Judiciary System’

The strange and bewildering case of Judge Peter J. ‘Chainsaw’ McBrien

Illustration By robert armstrong

Don’t get mad, the saying goes, get even. Certainly Ulf Carlsson has plenty to be angry about. In 2006, the Swedish-born American citizen entered divorce proceedings hoping to make the best of a bad situation. Instead, he lost custody of his teenage daughter, got fired from a 20-year career with the state of California and is about to lose his home.

So, yes, Ulf Carlsson is massively pissed, and the entirety of his ire is focused on the individual he holds accountable for his astounding reversal of fortune, the magistrate who presided over his two-day divorce trial, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Peter J. “Chainsaw” McBrien.

Last week, Carlsson and more than a dozen other self-proclaimed victims of McBrien’s alleged legal abuse officially notified the Sacramento Elections Office of their intent to recall the judge. They didn’t waste any time getting to the point.

“You are a disgrace to the American Judiciary System and an extreme danger to children and parents,” the recall petition begins, before detailing a number of alleged wrongs along with the relevant case numbers. “You destroyed a young boy by awarding the father custody after multiple investigations substantiated he had sexually abused the boy. … You awarded custody to an abusive mother, ignoring medical evidence that she seriously physically abused her young daughter. … You obtained, in secrecy, a copy of the court transcripts, altered them and had that respondent’s career destroyed. … When will your evil terrorism be stopped?”

A little over the top? Perhaps. But they don’t call McBrien “Chainsaw” for nothing. In 1999, he ordered a whack-job on a half-dozen oaks blocking his bluff-side view of the American River, knowing full well the trees were on public property, thus making the act of cutting them down felony vandalism. Unless, of course, you happen to be a judge with $20,000 on hand to bargain the crime down to a misdemeanor—and keep your ass firmly planted on the bench.

David Palmer, a Rancho Cordova resident who’s earned a national reputation as a judicial watchdog, lists McBrien in the “Criminals” chapter of his self-published Judicial Misfits: A Factual Exposé of an Industry Answerable Only to Itself. McBrien should consider himself lucky. Other chapter titles include “Child Molesters,” “Sadists” and “Miscellaneous Perverts.” Unfortunately, they’re aptly named, and as Palmer’s well-researched book demonstrates—with a healthy dose of sarcasm—virtually no crime short of homicide seems heinous enough to result in a judge’s removal from the bench.

The wisecracking Korean War vet made sure to mail McBrien an autographed copy of the book. Palmer’s own battle against the legal system began two decades ago, in Toledo, Ohio, after his wife was involved in a near-fatal auto accident, and a couple of attorneys attempted to help themselves to some of the insurance proceeds. Last week, I met with him and Carlsson at the latter’s spacious Gold River home, which he may soon lose to foreclosure.

Palmer’s war stories, which include more than a few victories, provided Carlsson a much-needed boost. His life turned upside down in McBrien’s courtroom, after the judge fixated on an issue that had little to do with the divorce: his failure to list a rental property on forms required for all state employees by the Fair Political Practices Commission. Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo paid a $2,000 fine for a similar omission last year. After McBrien or someone from McBrien’s office sent a copy of the transcript to Carlsson’s boss at the Department of General Services, it cost the Swede his job.

“These are vindictive people,” Palmer growled. “McBrien will destroy you if he can.”

For his part, McBrien doesn’t deny that. In fact,in his sworn response to the recall petition, the Univeristy of Southern California law school graduate, one-time Deukmejian appointee and 20-year veteran of the bench, denied practically every allegation but destroying Carlsson’s career.

“I deny disgracing the American Judiciary System,” he stated. “I deny giving children to sexually or physically abusive parents. I deny cutting down trees on public property.”

Tricky, that last denial. True, he didn’t do the cutting himself—he hired a chainsaw-wielding tree-killer. And while he denies “altering any public record,” he doesn’t deny obtaining the transcript that was sent to the Department of General Services and later used as grounds for Carlsson’s dismissal. Not that it matters. As one of the state’s leading legal scholars told me when I first wrote about McBrien last August, if a judge suspects you’re breaking the law, no matter how minor the infraction, he legally has the right—perhaps even the duty!—to report it.

I was going to note that this very same scholar helped author the law that supposedly put teeth in the Commission on Judicial Performance, the state watchdog agency that subsequently slapped old “Chainsaw” on the wrist for felony vandalism and allowed him to remain on the bench, but I didn’t want to make you mad.

There are enough people trying to get even around here already.