Justice Alex Bryner was interviewed on January 24, 2012 by Karen Brewster, William Oberly, and Kelly Taylor at the Boney Courthouse in Anchorage, Alaska. Alex Bryner served as the first Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals from 1980 to 1997. In 1997, he was appointed to the Alaska Supreme Court where he served until his retirement in 2007. In this interview, he talks about his family background and growing up, his variety of jobs in the legal profession, establishing the Appeals Court, differences between the Appeals and the Supreme Courts, his sense of humor, the joys and challenges of being a judge, and his assessment of Alaska’s judicial system.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Judges of Alaska
Date of Interview: Jan 24, 2012
Narrator(s): Justice Alexander Bryner
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster, William Oberly, Kelly Taylor
Videographer: Kelly Taylor
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
Being born in China to Russian immigrants
Moving to and growing up in California
Educational background and choosing to go to law school
Growing up as a Russian immigrant and discrimination
Coming to Alaska and getting a job as law clerk for Justice Boney
First impressions of Anchorage
Duties and responsibilities of a law clerk
Describing Justice George Boney
Philosophy of the early Alaska Supreme Court
Leaving Alaska and working as legal editor in San Francisco
Working as a public defender in Anchorage
Appointment as District Court judge
Motivation behind applying for judgeship
Court administrative staff separate from judicial functions
Becoming United States Attorney
Work as US Attorney on Alaska land cases and office staffing and management
Federal versus state selection of judges
Establishment of and appointment to the Alaska Court of Appeals
Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.
After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
KAREN BREWSTER: Today is January 24, 2012 and this is Karen Brewster and I'm here in Anchorage at the Boney Courthouse with Justice Alex Bryner for the Judges Oral History Project Jukebox.
I'm also joined by Kelly Taylor running the video camera and Bill Oberly running the audio recorder from the Bar Historians Group.
Thank you everybody for being here. And hopefully everybody can hear sound all right, all right.
So just to get us started, Justice Bryner tell us a little bit about your personal background.
JUSTICE BRYNER: Okay, how far back do you want me to start? From the beginning?
KAREN BREWSTER: From the beginning. When and where you were born and some of your growing up experience.
JUSTICE BRYNER: I was born in China as is normal I think. It was certainly normal for me and I was born of -- my parents were Russian and had ended up in China from Russia.
My mom’s parents had moved over I think before World War I from Russia. They came over building the railway from
Russia into Mainland China and ended up settling there and were involved in various commercial enterprises there.
My dad’s family fled Russia in the early 1930’s shortly after Joseph Stalin came into power and they were at that time in Vladivostok.
My father’s side of the family had lived in Vladivostok for quite a while and had to flee because they were in business with British Corpor --
British Trading Corporation and Stalin was ordering Russians who had ties to international corporations arrested so they
fled in the middle of the night in one of the freighters operated by their country and settled in China.
And in those days China had I think large -- all of the large ports were mercantile centers that engaged in tremendous commerce with Europe and the United States.
So my parents settled there. There was a large Russian community in the towns that they lived in.
They lived in Tin Zen and Harbin. I was born in Tin Zen.
Shortly after that they relocated to Harbin and I grew up there.
KAREN BREWSTER: I'm going to interrupt you a second. JUSTICE BRYNER: Sure.
KAREN BREWSTER: Which is what I forgot, which is cell phones. Because I just heard you beep. Somebody’s beep, beep, beep. Bill Oberly: That was mine.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. Since I don’t have a -- I don't normally have a cell phone so I forget about turning them off.
JUSTICE BRYNER: Can I just turn my off then? KAREN BREWSTER: Yes. JUSTICE BRYNER: I think I may not have turned my off.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. So what was it like growing up -- KELLY TAYLOR: It's doing the countdown.
KAREN BREWSTER: It's okay. So what was it like growing up in China?
JUSTICE BRYNER: I have only faint memories of China, bits and snatches of things.
I was born in China in 1943. My parents had to leave China because of the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1947, so I was four years old when I left.
My memories of China are just little brief fragmentary memories of unconnected events.
My mom, relatives, nothing really coherent, which arguably tracks the rest of my life, so I don’t have a lot of memories.
I do have pretty vivid memories of the journey over on a ship and our arrival.
We moved to California. We had family members who had previously moved to California and we settled in the San Francisco Bay area with a cousin of my dad’s who was a doctor at the Palo Alto Medical Clinic.
So I ended up living and growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Since both my parents were Russian and we lived kind of in a community of Russian people in China, I grew up speaking Russian.
I didn’t speak English when I came here.
Russian is my first language and I currently continue to speak Russian fluently at the level of a four year old.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I was thinking for your parents though, they had to learn Chinese and then they had to learn --
JUSTICE BRYNER: They didn’t have to learn that much Chinese. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay.
JUSTICE BRYNER: And again because the communities of international merchants were so large for each country that --
and so I think probably wealthy compared to ordinary Chinese residents that most of the international communities lived in situations where --
where they hired domestic workers and servants who were expected to learn enough Russian to kind of communicate with them and they really --
lots and lots of the folks weren’t fluent in Chinese.
And so I -- my parents know a little Chinese, but certainly aren’t knowledgeable in it.
KAREN BREWSTER: But then they had to learn English when they came to California?
JUSTICE BRYNER: They did. My father had been over -- both of them had studied English a little bit
in schools and then my father had come over and gone to junior college at Menlo School in California, so he had the basics.
My mother had a little less knowledge, but managed to get along, so it wasn’t too much of a hardship.
It was kind of a complete adjustment for my sister.
I had a sister who was one year older than me and at four and five it was just a -- from complete non-understanding to getting the language was kind of a black and white thing.
We just started out with nothing and had to fend for ourselves.
It was actually pretty easy at that age. It was a good age to --
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. What kind of work did your father do once you got to California?
JUSTICE BRYNER: He was an accountant for -- got a job as an accountant.
He had kind of a business background in the family business and found an accounting job and
then went on to kind of progress with that through a few different companies and
ended up with a fairly large door manufacturing company. So ---
KAREN BREWSTER: And then your education. You grew up in the Bay Area. Did you go to Stanford?
JUSTICE BRYNER: I grew up in the Bay Area and ended up going to public school and high school in Menlo Park.
After -- immediately after high school I went to Europe for a year just to study French nominally,
but mainly to ski with a couple of people I graduated with, so we did that and then I returned.
I did a year of college at the University of Colorado in Boulder. It was a good skiing school at the time.
And after a year in Boulder I felt that I had sort of sown my wild oats and had had enough.
So I went back to the Bay Area and from there on I went to Stanford for the rest of my undergraduate years.
Studied French. It was my undergraduate major and then went to law school at Stanford.
KAREN BREWSTER: Why did you decide to go into the law?
JUSTICE BRYNER: Just kind of by default. After majoring in French, I was sort of torn between trying to go for a Ph.D. in French, French Literature.
And it had its attractions, but it also wasn’t that attracted and really I had almost no sciences.
Just sort of did my science requirements in my last quarter at Stanford by taking Geology I and Geology II at the same time.
And so as an alternative law school was there. I could do it without having a specialty in --
without having any other particular curriculum, so I applied and went.
KAREN BREWSTER: Did you -- do you think your family background as an immigrant family or anything affected your perspectives on the law and your career choices?
JUSTICE BRYNER: Oh, I’m sure my experiences kind of growing up and
my experience having to sort of assimilate and learn a new language and
living in a pretty obviously Russian family in an era of the early 50’s where there was a lot of hostility to Russians. I mean those were the McCarthy years and
Russian Nationals were not highly regarded in those days and so there was kind of a sense of that that crept through as I was growing up and --
And all of that just sort of unawareness of the kinds of adjustments people have to make when they're not born here,
when they're not part of the culture from birth.
All of that sort of had an impact, but I think at pretty relatively low levels, nothing, you know, no giant affects or --
KAREN BREWSTER: You didn’t go into refugee law or anything like that?
JUSTICE BRYNER: No. And like I said, it was definitely a sensitivities and affects in my background that
always were there and maybe I think aware in ways that I wouldn’t of been aware of various things that were happening, but nothing earthshaking.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you mentioned growing up as the Russian and Cold War Period. Did you yourself feel discrimination?
JUSTICE BRYNER: Yeah, occasionally, not so much discrimination as pretty overt hostility in some circumstance.
One of our neighbors where we lived was always fairly hostile to my parents and to both me and -- my sister and me.
And nothing that was traumatic or particularly disturbing, but definitely noticeable and,
you know, for a long time I sort of wondered why it was that way and eventually it kind of became clear.
And point noted and you sort of absorb it and it's part of your experience.
BILL OBERLY: And did that change or was there any effect when the Cuban Missile Crisis happened? That was sort of a seminal event.
JUSTICE BRYNER: The Cuban Missile Crisis was sort of pretty far down the line from that and never had that much connection with -- no.
KAREN BREWSTER: So how did you come -- end up coming to Alaska?
JUSTICE BRYNER: Well, I came up from Alaska basically right after law school -- when I graduated from law school so I didn’t really have a set plan or a set purpose in going to law school.
And I came out of law school in about the same situation that I'd entered. Without much of a firm plan or without a lot of thoughts on what I'd do next.
I was still toying with the idea of going on from law school to a Ph.D. in French Literature
and was torn so I applied and got accepted, but decided not to and after --
after finishing school and graduating, I spent the summer -- early part of the summer studying for the bar in California at the school
and one day I just was passing by the personnel office and saw a little notice saying that a justice from the supreme court in Alaska was looking for a law clerk and that seemed like it might be fun.
So I wrote down the address and wrote a letter and nothing happened.
So I took the bar and my life progressed and in September of that year I was on the East Coast visiting with my wife -- visiting with her family,
and I got a call from my mom in California and she said that some judge from Alaska had called and wanted to talk to me.
And by that time I had almost forgotten that I had sent the letter to Alaska,
but I ended up flying back. And we had driven out to the East Coast, so I flew back to San Francisco and two days after I heard from my mom had an interview with Roger Connor,
who was visiting San Francisco at the time I think because he had a girlfriend in San Francisco.
But George Boney, who was the justice who wanted to hire a law school took advantage of his presence there to ask him to interview me.
So I interviewed with Justice Connor in his hotel room in San Francisco, and a couple of weeks later got a call from Justice Boney and he offered me a job.
KAREN BREWSTER: What year was this?
JUSTICE BRYNER: This was 1969, the fall of ’69. And Justice Boney had been on the court less than a yea,r
and his initial law clerk was scheduled to leave in mid-November.
And that was Bruce Bookman. So I was -- was hiring me to replace him.
And because Bruce had been hired on sort of an irregular basis that the position I got was actually -- and after that Boney went on sort of a regular year hire beginning in early summer.
So I worked actually from November of ’69 to 1971, to June of ’71 as a clerk. About a year and a half as a clerk.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you moved to Alaska in November? JUSTICE BRYNER: I did just --
KAREN BREWSTER: In November from California?
JUSTICE BRYNER: The week before Thanksgiving, and it was just an incredibly strange experience because it was dark.
There was almost nothing here. Anchorage at that time was --
hadn’t really started to grow but was just at the very, very beginning phase of starting to grow from the impact of the discovery of oil and the whole oil thing was starting up.
The town was obviously starting to grow, but hadn’t grown yet.
It was very small, very dark. In that year we had no snow here yet the week before September or before Thanksgiving,
but everything was just frozen over and hard frozen and had kind of gritty frost on it.
Half of Spenard here was just daylight basements. You know, basements that hadn’t been finished with staircases coming up to the front.
The town didn’t go out much farther than Spenard.
It was just kind of dark and cold and bleak, and kind of frightening.
The airport was tiny. We had to walk through sort of plywood doors to get into the back of the airport from our plane.
And it was pretty strange, but then the people were wonderful.
Bruce Bookman who I was replacing greeted me at the airport. We stayed at his place.
I quickly got an apartment on the Park Strip and I went to work the following Monday and
met George Boney who did all the talking for most of the day.
And after that just kind of settled into the routine of a law clerk.
I had never experienced anything like it. Didn’t really know what the position would be like when I came, but once I got exposed to it, I thought it was great.
Everybody was very friendly, very kind, very intelligent. And it turned out to be a great opportunity.
KAREN BREWSTER: I know other people in the room here know the experience of a law clerk, but I and other people in the world don’t. What do you do as a law clerk?
JUSTICE BRYNER: It sort of depends on who you're working for to a certain extent, but with the court at that time we were basically --
at that -- when I came each of the justices -- the court had recently been expanded from a three justice court to a five justice court.
Justices Connor and Boney had been added less than a year before I arrived.
The chief justice who at that was -- had a lifetime appointment was Buell Nesbett.
And he had recently had an airplane accident and was hospitalized and in treatment in San Diego when I came up so he was gone for a prolonged period of time.
He had a law clerk that was here. All of the justices, each justice, had just one law clerk and the law clerk basically did whatever the justice wanted.
All of the research and writing necessary to prepare cases, drafting of opinions to the extent directed and guided by the individual justice,
and then research and writing, critiquing and analyzing opinions circulated by other justices sort of as needed or as requested.
And depending on who you work for sometimes some extra curricular stuff, too.
KAREN BREWSTER: It sounds like the law clerks are pretty key to keeping all these offices going and the work that goes on in them.
JUSTICE BRYNER: Law clerks always are sort of key part of the process, yeah.
It -- and produce a lot of the sort of the grist for the judges mill.
The judges are always sort of -- always make the calls and provide the guidance,
but the law clerks really have a lot of flexibility and initiative in terms of how they prepare and present things and
to their individual justice or judge. And if they're effective can have a lot of influence.
KAREN BREWSTER: You mentioned extra-curricular activities. I was going to ask you to talk about George Boney, and what he was like, and what it was like working for him?
JUSTICE BRYNER: George Boney was an in -- I thought an incredibly interesting and wonderful person.
He was I think originally a family from Florida born in probably a lower middle class environment,
but obviously extremely intelligent and extremely sort of enthusiastic and vibrant.
Did really well in a public school setting down there and ended up with, I believe, a scholarship at Harvard and was educated in law in Harvard.
Because of his family experience I think they weren’t wealthy people. I think they faced -- he faced hardships as a child because --
because of the type of life his family led that --
and because of that I think he -- he was always had a deep sense of the importance of sort of constitutional protections in terms of guarantees of equality and liberty and freedom. So he came out with --
of his childhood and out of law school with a very strong sense of the significance of the rule of law and the importance of the constitution.
And he was also a tremendously astute politician. He knew how to politic. He knew how to change peoples’ minds. He knew how to do things to get what he wanted.
He came to Alaska, I think, with the Air Force as a Jag Officer out of law school, and things were firing up here when his service was over so he
left the service and stayed here as an attorney and went to work with what came to be Burr, Boney, and Pease, a firm here.
He was, I think, a strong supporter of Wally Hickel's, a good friend of Wally Hickel’s,
and he was selected by Hickel when Hickel was governor and the court expanded to -- by adding two additional justices.
I think from day one and particularly after -- after Chief Justice Nesbett was injured, I think George Boney aspired to become the new chief.
He also because of perceptions at the time about his perceptions, and the perceptions of others at the time of Buelll Nesbett’s sort of iron fisted control of the supreme court,
George Boney always, and very openly, touted the position that if he ever became chief justice he would change the system so it wasn’t a chief justice for life so it became a rotating chief justiceship.
And about -- so that was George Boney. He was a -- he loved politicking. He loved the power of being on the court.
He had a strong sense of constitutional rights. A tremendously strong sense of the potential of Alaska and of the significance of the fact that Alaska had a new constitution and a modern constitution.
A tremendous and strong belief in the importance of an independent judiciary.
I think he was very firmly of the belief that Hitler had come to power and was able to exert the power to cause the tremendous harm that was caused during World War II because of the weakness of the judicial branch of government.
So he was a tremendously strong believer in judicial independence.
And he let his law clerks do most of his work, as long as you could stay in tune with what he thought and what he wanted.
He let you have a lot of -- a lot of leeway and a lot of independence.
So it was just from a law clerk's perspective it was kind of an ideal situation.
And Roger Connor was a close friend of George’s at the time and in a lot of ways Roger was different than George.
He was much more academically oriented, must more sophisticated and polished,
but basically they shared a lot of the same core beliefs about judicial independence, about the importance of constitutional freedoms.
Both of them were close to Governor Hickel and that new combination went really well with Justice Rabinowitz, who was in Fairbanks, and Justice Dimond, who was in Juneau.
And so the new court with Chief Justice Nesbett injured just sort of was kind of reborn as a completely different court than existed before.
And about that time the state was growing and we had an influx of attorneys, an influx of population, lots of new business coming in.
A strong period of growth. So those were tremendously interesting years.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, I think they're the wild times of the early oil days. JUSTICE BRYNER: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: That spilled over into the court system.
JUSTICE BRYNER: Yeah. And sort of prompted an era where the courts --
the Alaska Supreme Court pretty consciously and pretty affirmatively shaped and developed the Alaska Constitution into a document that reflected that at least from the court’s perspective was meant to reflect what Alaska’s constitutional founders intended it to be.
You had in those early days -- the late 60’s, the early 70’s you had decisions like Baker v. Fairbanks that recognized the importance of construing Alaska’s Constitution to be more protective when it was appropriate than the United States Supreme Court Constitution.
I mean those were the -- that was the Nixon Era that -- the beginning of the Nixon Era.
That was the era when the United States Supreme Court had changed to the Burger Court and the Warren Courts kind of expansive approach to the interpreting the United States conclusion or constitution was --
was beginning to feel the first restrictions of the Nixon Era and Chief Justice Burger’s political philosophy and --
And so as the protections began to shrink at the federal level, I think the Alaska Supreme Court at the time saw a tremendous significance in maintaining Alaska’s independence in interpreting its own constitution -- developing its own constitution.
KAREN BREWSTER: So after clerking for Justice Boney, what did you go on to do after that?
JUSTICE BRYNER: Well, the first thing I did is I left Alaska.
We weren’t quite -- my wife and I weren’t quite convinced that we wanted to stay here just -- because Alaska at the time was not -- a lot different than mainstream Lower 48 states were.
You didn’t -- if you're in Anchorage now you pretty much could be in almost anywhere in the Lower 48 in a comparable sized community.
It wasn’t quite the same. There really was a feeling of isolation in those years.
And both my wife and I were away from our families, so we moved back from San Francisco -- to San Francisco.
I spent about eight months working --
I had wanted to get on -- into one of the public defender agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area. That's unless you're hired directly out of law school you have to go through a Civil Service interview process.
It took a while to get on the list and after about eight months of working as a legal editor for Bancroft Whitney and waiting to get called for an interview with the public defender agency, I got an offer from the public defender agency in Alaska to come up and work in Anchorage.
Decided by then we loved San Francisco, but not that much, and we both decided to come back up here so I took that job and came back. And that was in July of ’72.
KAREN BREWSTER: So that was in the very early years of when there was a new public defender here in Anchorage, right?
JUSTICE BRYNER: Yeah, the public defender agency was still very new.
The first public defender was Vic Carlson and he had been appointed I think by Governor Miller in 1970 -- late ’70 I think to the superior court bench and so Herb Soll
had just taken over the second public defender and the office was small. It was new. Main office was here in Anchorage.
We had a branch in Juneau and Ketchikan and in Fairbanks and that was about it. So I came up to do that.
KAREN BREWSTER: And what did that entail?
JUSTICE BRYNER: It entailed replacing Bruce Bookman again, who -- it was the second time I replaced Bruce Bookman, who was sort of on his way out.
And at that time the public defender agency was great, too, because it was all the attorneys,
nearly all the attorneys were quite young, one or two exceptions.
The expectations of -- at that time were that nobody was a career public defender. You worked there until you kind of burned out, and that was sort of it.
The offices weren’t particularly organized and it was sort of get there, take files in your hand, and sort of survive.
Everybody was overworked. Nobody knew exactly what they were doing.
I think things now are much bigger in those agencies. To a certain extent they're quite a bit the same though.
The people are overworked and they have considerably more guidance, a lot more experience and tend to stay for a longer period of time,
but it was an exciting place to go and to be because the caseload was tremendously exiting.
There was a lot happening in criminal law in Anchorage, and we were sort of immediately immersed in that and became involved in that.
So it was a pretty exciting and stressful practice for a couple of years.
KAREN BREWSTER: What did the public do for their defense before there was a public defender here?
JUSTICE BRYNER: To a certain extent -- to a certain extent I think private attorneys took on criminal cases -- appointments in criminal cases pro bono,
but until the late 60’s you didn’t have the recognition of a right to counsel for indigent defendants.
So that was a relatively new phenomenon and that's ultimately what prompted the development -- sort of nationwide development of public defender agencies.
The concept of public defender -- an agency dedicated to representing indigent clients in criminal cases.
So it wasn’t just -- this was a new idea in Anchorage when I came up, it was a relatively new phenomenon elsewhere.
And the major change in Alaska came to be that as the 60’s ended and the 70’s began and with the advent of the Warren Court the federal right of --
of representation for indigents became restricted to representation in felony cases
and Alaska, of course, interpreted the Alaska Constitution to provide that right to any criminal case, including
any case punishable by imprisonment for a period of time sufficient to create an appearance of -- that the offender had done something improper.
So the mission of public defender agencies elsewhere were primarily to handle the most serious categories of crime felonies,
and in Anchorage and Alaska it always remained the representation of all -- people in all criminal cases, misdemeanor and felony.
KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. And when did you first get appointed to the bench?
JUSTICE BRYNER: I got appointed to the bench first in 1975.
KAREN BREWSTER: Tell us more.
JUSTICE BRYNER: So that was -- that was about three years after I came back and started to practice in Alaska.
BILL OBERLY: Is it right out of the public defender’s office or -- ?
JUSTICE BRYNER: No, it wasn’t right out of the public defender’s office. I left the public defender’s office after about two years there and practiced for a little bit more than --
than a year with Bruce Bookman and Brian Shortell in private practice and then
Governor Hammond was in office and I got an opportunity -- and there were some district court judgeships came open in Anchorage.
I was encouraged to apply by a couple of people. I was pretty young at the time, but the state was pretty young in terms of its attorney population.
Lots of -- there were lots of young attorneys and so that definitely wasn’t an obstacle. So I applied and got appointed.
And the district court in Anchorage at the time was primarily a misdemeanor court, which is really where I'd kind of grown up in the public defender agency
doing misdemeanors and then ultimately felonies in the Anchorage court.
So I had had a lot of experience and it seemed like a natural progression at the time.
These days I think it seems like a pretty quick career path. In those days I think it was much -- much more usual and much less unusual. So --
KAREN BREWSTER: So you said, you know, other people encouraged you to apply, but was there something within yourself that you thought, "Well I think I might like to be judge, give it a try?"
JUSTICE BRYNER: I mean the only -- The motivating influences for me apart from sort of the usual commitment to the idea of rule of law and constitutional justice and that was that my experience --
my first experience in Alaska was with the court system and from the supreme court perspective
and I really did get the sense that the Alaska Court System was a tremendously unusual and an unusually advanced system as a system.
It's a statewide system. There are no local courts. Theyre all state courts.
They're all under the control of the Alaska Supreme Court. They're not -- the trial courts aren’t independent.
They're all administered by the Alaska Supreme Court. The supreme court consists of -- of the entire state judiciary is selected on the basis of a merit selection process that really does work.
One of George Boney’s primary commitments when he became chief justice after -- after Justice Nesbett retired, which was about half through -- halfway through my term as a clerk,
at first he fulfilled his promise and had the constitution changed to make the chief justiceship a rotating justice -- chief justice and not a chief justiceship for life.
But second George Boney, because of his -- he was -- because of his commitment to sort of equality he was a tremendously, tremendously strong proponent of justice in the Bush.
Of bringing the court system -- of not having the court system be focused in Anchorage or in the major centers, but having justice present throughout communities and in the Bush.
And that's reflected in part in the Alvarado decision, which adopted as an Alaska constitutional right the right to have
jury trial including jurors selected from the area in which a crime occurred.
It had a tremendous influence in prompting legislatures after that to establish courts in rural communities,
and to really staff the courts with -- with presiding judges who lived there and were residents of the community.
So all of those things sort of impacted my later decision to kind of go into the court system.
And the other thing is that the court at that time when Justice -- after Chief Justice Boney died and Justice Rabinowitz succeeded him as chief justice,
Chief Justice Rabinowitz really kept up the focus and priorities in terms of the importance of statewide judiciary.
And he also was, I think, the first chief justice who recognized that the significance of having an administrative staff on the court that was divorced from the court's judicial functions
so that it would be effective with the legislature without getting the justices involved in the kind of lobbying that goes on to get budgets and bills passed.
At the same time, nationwide I think there was a tremendous growth in judicial administration as sort of a separate area of government and political science,
and that was sort of nationwide developing a cadre of well-education and well-trained judicial administrators.
And so early on in his -- in early -- the early 70’s, early on in his own term, his first term as Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, Justice Rabinowitz and the court interviewed various applicants and ended up hiring Art Snowden, Arthur Snowden as administrator director of the court.
And the administrative building across the stree is named after Snowden now. And Snowden came here with a tremendously strong sense of the importance of judicial independence, the importance of the judicial branch of government.
And a tremendously astute knowledge of how to successfully develop the court system and the court system’s organization and physical plant and its budgetary needs.
How to get all of that through the legislature in a way that was effective and left the court out of --
pretty much out of the kind of lobbying contacts and political efforts that would normally, at least from appearance point of view, sort of create an appearance that the court was engaging in politics.
But all of those things -- that I guess at the time I applied for the court all of my sort of awareness just basically my perception that this was a new state with a new set of laws that came with statehood,
a new constitution, a very effective court, a tremendously effective system operating in a modern way without a big history of, you know, established people who had connections and ties.
And it was all -- it was all very inviting and a tremendously exciting system to become involved in.
So the attraction of applying for a job in the court system wasn’t at all difficult to notice if you were there and present in a situation like mine at the time, so it just seemed like a real natural thing to apply.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, then you switched to being District Attorney. So you kept going back and forth, court, law, court, both sides?
JUSTICE BRYNER: Not exactly District Attorney. It was United States Attorney and that was -- KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, it was US Attorney?
JUSTICE BRYNER: Yeah. And that was a political appointment that occurred with -- when Carter was elected president.
And so I was appointed US Attorney. It wasn’t a result of any politicking or particular ties that I had.
I happened to know and be close to a couple of people who did have close political ties.
I didn’t -- I wasn’t originally interested in the appointment, but it turned out that two of the prime candidates for the US Attorney --
US Attorney position were so powerfully involved in a battle against each other for the position that they disqualified each other.
And Senator Gravel at the time was left with nobody appointable from his original list.
KAREN BREWSTER: Who were those other two?
JUSTICE BRYNER: I -- you know, I forget who the other two were now, but it was definitely they were two prominently known candidates duking it out for the position and they just really managed to cancel each other out.
So I was quietly approached and asked would I would be interested and I said well if I didn’t have to politic for it.
I was assured I wouldn’t, and the next thing I knew I had a call from Senator Gravel’s office, and was interviewed and it all sort of fell together.
KAREN BREWSTER: So what was that position like?
JUSTICE BRYNER: It was hair raising. This was my first and only real exposure to the federal bureaucracy, and which is a different universe.
It really is completely different. It was a tremendous experience in terms of --
professional experience in terms of being able to see how the Justice Department works, how it's organized.
Tremendously impressive institution and populated by attorneys that just have incredible depth and experience in a variety of -- in a variety of fields and areas that's just unriveled.
All of that was pretty impressive, but the bureaucracy -- the federal bureaucracy is pretty impressive, too.
I still remember my first visit to Washington, DC and going through the Justice Department and seeing the highest official secretaries and the highest official’s offices would be working on the most important things and at the stroke of noon they would disappear.
It didn’t matter what they were working on. They wouldn’t be back there until the mid -- after one, no matter what the emergency was. It just --
so it was kind of both a tremendously rewarding experience for me and a tremendously eye-opening experience for me in how different federal politics are than state politics.
How much more complicated and how much entrenched bureaucracy is at the federal level.
KAREN BREWSTER: Were there some particular cases that come to mind that you worked on that stuck with you?
JUSTICE BRYNER: Yeah, a number of cases. We handled a wide field of cases.
Those in the years that I was there -- ’77 through ’80, you know, Alaska land issues were very large and environmental protection was sort of starting up and land use issues and land access issues were one of the words.
So we had a lot of litigation that we were involved in that was viewed as significant ANILCA lands issues.
We had a lot of criminal cases here that were pretty significant that we were involved in.
But most of the work that I tried to do as US Attorney involved sort of handling and managing my staff of Assistant US Attorneys. From shortly before I was appointed to the time I was appointed,
the staff was really expanded significantly and had attorneys for the first time who were assigned from main justice working in addition to Assistant US Attorneys who were here.
So it was an expanded office and I came in with a pretty experienced staff of Assistant US Attorneys and a lot of my time was spent doing administrative stuff,
organizing the office and all of that work was kind of a new area of -- it's kind of an eye-opening area of experience for me, especially because as I came into the office, the new federal building was just being built,
and so half way through my term we had to go through the physical relocation from the old federal building to the new federal building and kind of adapt to that.
And then I also got experience fairly close to the federal system of both judicial selection and judges, which is an experience working with federal judges and that's quite a different experience than the experience in state court.
KAREN BREWSTER: In what way is it different?
JUSTICE BRYNER: In lots of -- there's lots more -- there's lots more formality and lots more power on the federal bench than there is at the state level.
Those judges they're appointed for life. They're not appointed on the basis of merit.
That said, the federal judiciary has a tremendously strong -- as a rule a tremendously strong group of extremely -- extremely dedicated and devoted judges,
but you have wild hairs that you can’t imagine could ever be there though. And some of those judges know how to use their powers in ways that's oppressive to people they want to oppress.
And when that happens it has real life effects and there's very little anybody can do about it.
So you see abuses of power occasionally in that system that you just don’t get in a system like Alaska.
KAREN BREWSTER: I just want to make sure we're doing okay on our recording. KELLY TAYLOR: Five minutes. KAREN BREWSTER: Is it reco -- it's recording? KELLY TAYLOR: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. Well, what I want to ask next is about the Court of Appeals. That's what comes next. JUSTICE BRYNER: So -- KAREN BREWSTER: -- in your career, right?
JUSTICE BRYNER: Yeah, that comes next in my career. As the Carter Administration was winding down in --
at the end of the 70’s and 1980, the Alaska Legislature created the Alaska Court of Appeals, which was created as the initial thought was to create an intermediate court of appeals for both civil and criminal cases.
I think that study of the population of cases handled by the supreme court pretty much established that the caseload, although the Alaska Supreme Court caseload was --
was extremely high at the time and was more than the Alaska Supreme Court could handle and could handle well, because cases were expanding really fast in those years.
The conclusion also became pretty clear that there weren’t enough cases to justify a panel of intermediate court judges that was big enough to handle both kind of cases,
and still leave the supreme court with any appreciable caseload that they could handle.
So it became pretty clear that if a court -- intermediate court was needed and it definitely was.
It would be best served by a court limited to criminal cases that was the bulk of the caseload handled by the Alaska supreme court.
So the legislature adopted and enacted by statute a court of appeals consisting of three judges who would do appeals as a matter of right in all criminal cases,
and from there the cases would go to the supreme court by discretionary petition for ultimate review.
So the legislature passed that and it became a reality in 1980.
At the same time, over the three years preceding that, the legislature had been involved in a complete rewrite of Alaska's Criminal Code.
So by 1980 there was a brand new criminal code that had been adopted, enacted, and was ready to go.
And at about the same time in the late 60’s or the late 70’s and early 80’s, the Alaska Supreme Court had initiated a kind of systematic rewriting and retained
a law professor from the University of Virginia, Professor Saltzburg, to draft a new set of evidentiary rules tracking or modeled on the federal rules of evidence.
So Alaska had a new set of Rules of Evidence that had just been vetted and was adopted by the Alaska Supreme Court.
So as it -- at that point it was clear to me that Carter wasn’t going to be re-elected as president, so I wasn’t going to be in the US Attorney’s position too long.
Three new openings were announced for the new court of appeals, and so I applied for that.
And the timing just turned out to be right on that one.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. I think --