This is a continuation of the interview with Justice Alex Bryner on January 24, 2012 in Anchorage, Alaska by Karen Brewster, William Oberly, and Kelly Taylor. This is a continuation of tape numbers Oral History 2012-02-03, Parts 1 and 2. In this third and final part of the interview, Justice Bryner talks about his contributions to Alaska's legal system, his retirement, and the office environment.
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
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Contributions to Alaska's legal system
Decision to retire
Being a private attorney
Praise for support staff
Being on the job for a long time
The inflatable Godzilla in his office
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KAREN BREWSTER: One of the last questions I wanted to ask you about was looking back on your long and varied career. There it is, flashing by.
What you think of as your biggest accomplishment or biggest contribution to Alaska’s legal system?
JUSTICE BRYNER: I'm not sure I spend a lot of time thinking of myself as a contributor.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, you were, I mean, you were on the first court of appeals. First chief justice of the court of appeals. You were in Alaska --
What I find fascinating is, you know, Alaska was a young state and all you guys in that time period were in on the ground floor.
And what that must have been like and how you may have influenced the development along the way?
JUSTICE BRYNER: And again to sort of shelve that question aside. I haven’t spent a lot of time in introspection.
I guess because of the kind of childhood I've had, sort of growing up on the streets of Menlo Park, California
I always feel that I've succeeded if I manage to get through a day without breaking something.
So to a certain extent that to have been able to sort of survive a career serving on a trial court and a criminal court of appeals and the US attorney’s office and the Alaska Supreme Court,
and to kind of survive that experience without really breaking anything seriously is to me
enough of a reassurance, especially because I regard the systems that I served in as really great wonderful systems that do about as good a job as you can do with the duties of meting out justice in a democracy.
And so if I can serve and contribute enough to keep the system running and not leave it degraded as I go out the door.
I mean, that's enough of a contribution as I'm -- and so I've never tried to lead much beyond that.
I tried to make improvements and where I saw a need or room to do it.
And I tried to decide the individual cases correctly.
And in a way that would help advance the course of law in the future. And,
but it's not like I have a score book at the end of the day giving myself style points and substance points, so --
KAREN BREWSTER: And it wasn't --
JUSTICE BRYNER: And I wouldn’t know how to tally it up.
KAREN BREWSTER: And there wasn’t one particular, you know, some particular decision that you feel particularly proud of like, "Oh, I’m glad I was on the majority on that one and it went that way?"
JUSTICE BRYNER: There are a number of cases, a whole bunch of cases that I sort of feel proud of, and a few cases that I kind of regret.
But no pole star or culminating case that I sort of dwell on, and no career maker or career breaker that I --
KAREN BREWSTER: We just had air -- we're getting these airplanes going by.
Well, one of the -- do you have one of those examples of one of those you're proud of?
JUSTICE BRYNER: There -- I guess they're just sort of lots and lots of cases that fall in that category.
I mean a lot of cases I can think of where I thought we reached a -- that we decided the case well and decided it correctly.
And I really don’t want to single out particular cases and point -- point to them.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. Now we'll move on to your retirement. You retired in 2007 from the supreme court?
And why did you decide to retire?
JUSTICE BRYNER: It was just kind of time to retire. By then I had been in the process for about thirty years.
I was old enough to be fully vested in retirement and --
KAREN BREWSTER: You're so practical about it all.
JUSTICE BRYNER: And my family was pretty much growing away from -- my kids pretty much growing away and moving away.
I had -- I wanted more personal time to be with them.
And for me at least, the process of being a member of the court has always been pretty -- a pretty arduous process.
You have to -- at least I've had to work hard at it.
It's not easy to make hard decisions if they're hard for you and they should be if you're making hard decisions.
And so there's wear and tear that goes into the process.
And then most important there's -- I mean I guess my presence in the law is accidental.
I didn’t ever have a strong and established ambition to be a lawyer or a judge or devote my career to that.
I fell into. I liked it. It was very rewarding work for me when I did it, but it hasn’t been a lifetime mission.
I've been interested in other things.
And the longer and harder you work at it, the more the wear and tear makes it more difficult for you to work.
And, also the more sense you have that you have limited time to do the other things you might be interested in. KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.
JUSTICE BRYNER: And then last is it's kind of like sort of an endurance event.
You can endure for a considerable time. After a while your pace starts to slow down.
It becomes more of an effort and at a point you feel that time is right.
There are other things you can do, and maybe the system would be better off with somebody younger and more experienced.
KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. What are some of those other interests that you say you wanted to pursue?
JUSTICE BRYNER: Well, one of the things I wanted to pursue that I have done is I've always wanted to sort of see, after decades of experience doing judicial work,
and very limited actual practice experience, except just kind of a government attorney, and always wanted to see if --
how interesting and what it would be like to really be on the practicing end of law.
KAREN BREWSTER: So, that's why you went back into private practice?
JUSTICE BRYNER: And I had an opportunity to do it and it was very attractive to me because I just wanted to see what would happen if --
if what I was doing on the court would correspond at all to what I envisioned the practice of law of being involved and whether --
what I learned or didn’t learn would shape up to be helpful or non-helpful when it came to the actual practice of law.
And I wanted to see how my perceptions of legal practice from the bench jived with what I really saw happening on the ground.
If I kind of got on the ground and tried to run with the pack of attorneys that was constantly at my heels when I was on the bench. So --
BILL OBERLY: And did it jive?
JUSTICE BRYNER: I mean, to me it's been an eye opening experience.
I -- my -- if anything I'm incredibly impressed by what it takes and what -- what good attorneys do in the course of their practice.
I'm incredibly impressed at how much effort and ability people put in it and how hard they work and consistently have to work.
So it's been -- and kind of I can sort of survive in that system because I kind of have a halfway pass to being tolerated at the edges.
But I'm not sure it would be easy for somebody coming off a career like mine to take right up with an active practice,
and do what it takes to really succeed. So I'm impressed.
KAREN BREWSTER: We're getting lots of airplanes and now trains in the background here.
Is there anything you miss about being a judge now that you're gone?
JUSTICE BRYNER: Sure. I mean there are things I miss about everything in life that I've done for a while and then not done after that.
And, yeah, I do miss the power and the glory, the adulation.
KAREN BREWSTER: There's so much of that as an appeals court judge?
JUSTICE BRYNER: Not that much. Uh-huh.
I -- there's definitely a level of connection you have with the staff and the people here.
And particularly the staff. And one of the things I can say about the Alaska Court System, I should say is that --
that the organization and administration has always been -- always been wonderfully orchestrated so that judges are not
only allowed to function independently, but are given staff that really are professional and know how to -- how to --
how to help judges and that goes to the administrative staff, and to the secretarial staff.
I never could have survived, I think, my years on the bench without just an incredible path of judicial assistance, formerly called secretaries,
that really made it possible to do what I do.
They tolerated me and helped me and --
and the connections with those people and the kind of professionalism that you live with and see and get used to every day,
you take for granted when you're separated from that. It's hard not to miss it.
KAREN BREWSTER: Also, I mean you served, you know, 17 years on the court of appeals and how many years on the supreme court?
JUSTICE BRYNER: About ten. KAREN BREWSTER: Those are long -- JUSTICE BRYNER: Ten.
KAREN BREWSTER: Those are long terms. Is that typical?
JUSTICE BRYNER: I don’t think being a judge is typical for most people, so --
I think service extended that, you know, a 10, 11 year period of service on the supreme court isn’t atypical.
I think it's not typical to, at least in Alaska, to serve.
But nationwide I don’t know what would be typical.
KAREN BREWSTER: And well, I was thinking that it if you were in a position for 10 or 15, 20 years
you form a certain relationship with the position and you say the people around you and the people you work with.
The other judges you work with and how that's different than if you're, you know, a judge for two years and then you switch to a different one.
And what that's like working in the same place for so long?
JUSTICE BRYNER: I think it is a bit odd that I started my career about 150 feet away from here and am still within 400 yards of here.
And live about four blocks from here.
So, you know, maybe 99% of my life for the last 40 years as occurred within a half -- a half square mile of here.
And that may be a bit odd, but I've got a few years left to do something about it.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I was wondering what's that like to work with the same people for 10 years?
JUSTICE BRYNER: It's great to work with the same people for 10 years if they're nice people and you can get along with them.
And I guess the real blessing here is that I've always had great people and nice people surrounding me.
So been really lucky that way.
KAREN BREWSTER: When you look back are there things you wish you had done differently, or regrets you might have, if you could change?
JUSTICE BRYNER: I've always regretted not being independently wealthy.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. You can do that?
JUSTICE BRYNER: Either that or powerful.
But no, no real regrets, at least not on a persisting basis.
KAREN BREWSTER: We've gotten you through retirement now, and unless you guys have any questions.
Is there anything else that you felt like you wanted to talk about that I've forgotten to ask?
JUSTICE BRYNER: Godzilla. I haven’t mentioned Godzilla yet.
KELLY TAYLOR: Godzilla appeared in the pictures, what's the story behind that?
JUSTICE BRYNER: No, you don’t want to know.
No, I had an inflatable Godzilla here and that was our Christmas Godzilla.
Every Christmas we’d inflate the Christmas Godzilla and put Christmas lights on Godzilla.
And that was a tradition here for years and years and years.
And then we had Tom -- I don’t know if you ever heard of Tom Donahue (phonetic).
He was a law clerk that I had and he sort of did the Photoshop of the entire staff with Godzilla heads and me, so it was --
KAREN BREWSTER: Godzilla was your mascot?
JUSTICE BRYNER: Exactly. It was kind of a standing joke for years.
KELLY TAYLOR: How did it start?
JUSTICE BRYNER: It started by my happening into this inflatable Godzilla.
And I don’t really recall where it came from or how I got it, but once I got it I didn’t want to let it go.
It's not everyday that you get a Godzilla that you can grow up -- you know just blow up and it's there.
After a couple of decades it leaked, and it was hard to keep pumped up.
We just let her droop there. So -- I still have it at home.
KAREN BREWSTER: I know there're lots of stories that we can get you to tell. I'm also worried about --
these airplanes are causing havoc with the recorder, so I think we're going to stop.
JUSTICE BRYNER: Yeah, that's fine. KAREN BREWSTER: You can tell stories off tape. JUSTICE BRYNER: Fine, I'm --