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Judge James von der Heydt, Part 2

This is a continuation of the interview with Judge James von der Heydt by Judge Niesje Steinkruger and Karen Brewster on December 9, 2010 at his condominium overlooking Cook Inlet in downtown Anchorage, Alaska.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2006-15-32_PT.2

Project: Alaska Mental Health Trust History
Date of Interview: Dec 9, 2010
Narrator(s): Judge James von der Heydt
Interviewer(s): Judge Niesje Steinkruger, Karen Brewster
Transcriber: Carol McCue
People Present: Verna von der Heydt
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Humanities Forum, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

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Section 1: Being in the state legislature when the Mental Health Enabling Act was discussed, effect of statehood on patients returning from Morningside Hospital, and the many jobs he had in Nome.

Section 2: US Commissioner deciding sanity cases in Nome versus by a jury of six people.

Section 3: Lack of educational preparation for handling sanity cases, and communicating with non-English speakers in hearings.

Section 4: Assessment of the court system in how sanity cases were handled.

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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


Section 1: JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: Judge, you were in the legislature at the time the Mental Health Lands Bill was passed by Congress. JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Yes. JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: And ‑‑ and the Federal Government wanted Alaska to assume responsibility for its mentally ill people. JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Uh‑hum.

JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: Was that an ‑‑ was that something that was considered and talked about in the legislature? JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Yes. Not ‑‑ not much. We ‑‑ I don't think most of the legislators at the time considered it a very serious thing and it was just kind of passed over. I don't think anything ever happened to it in the sense that it was adopted. That I recall. JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: Do you remember anything about people coming back from Morningside to ‑‑ JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Yes.

JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: ‑‑ Harbor ‑‑ I think they went to Harborview, some of them, in Valdez, and then to Alaska Psychiatric Institute when it was built? JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: I don't remember that much. They ‑‑ they ‑‑ they were in ‑‑ in, what did you say? JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: Harborview.

JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: No. JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: Morningside? JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Morningside. And once they were dismissed from there, they were kind of ‑‑ it was kind of they had been medically determined to be cured, and ‑‑ and the ‑‑ they ‑‑ they came back and kind of led a normal life after that, as I recall it. Not necessarily in Nome, but from wherever they were from.

JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: What happened at statehood, then? Were people sent back from Morningside? JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Yes. Uh‑hum. They were. JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: And tell me a little bit, if you ‑‑ if you can, about the ‑‑ the different roles that you have. One of the things that maybe we want to talk to you is when I looked at the files in Nome, I saw you had been a Marshal, U.S. Attorney, you had been a lawyer for all those ‑‑ JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: U.S. Commissioner. Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: Commissioner.

JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: Yes, all those different ‑‑ you sat in about every chair in a sanity case. JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Yeah. That's right. And actually, or in ‑‑ in some just general cases, I was the only one, for example, that was ever a commissioner there, and I sat as commissioner in a lot of different values, so to speak. And that's just the way it was.

VERNA VON DER HEYDT: He was City Attorney, also. JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Yeah. JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: Really? JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: I was city ‑‑ yeah. There wasn't much of a job that didn't find me.

Section 2: KAREN BREWSTER: So what was that like switching from side to side on those sanity cases? What was it like to be the commissioner on one of those? JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Well, you were the judge then, and you had to decide whether or not the individual was insane and at large, as the statute was read. And sometimes yes, sometimes no.

KAREN BREWSTER: Was it an easy decision, or there were challenges to it? JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Well, they almost never had an attorney, even though there were a couple practicing attorneys in Nome, and so you were ‑‑ the commissioner was the judge of it, and you just thought, you know, well, this seems silly to me, why should, then you'd let them go, so to speak; or you would ‑‑ you would find that they should be incarcerated for a while so something could be decided.

JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: And then, really, you have the ‑‑ the judge, as we say, then a jury decided. You didn't have to always decide whether they went to Morningside? JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: No. JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: That was a jury decision.

JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Not always, but usually there wasn't a jury in those kind of cases, at least not in Nome, but they were ‑‑ they were taken ‑‑ taken care of, so to speak, and ‑‑ and it ‑‑ and the commissioner would decide, be the judge, and decide whether or not they should be incarcerated.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, then, wait, I'm confused, then. You said you would pick a jury of six people from the street. JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Uh‑hum. KAREN BREWSTER: But then, obviously, there weren't juries. Would it be different kinds of cases? JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Yes. Yes.

KAREN BREWSTER: Like what were the differences? I don't ‑‑ JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Oh, gosh, what were the ‑‑ well, they were ‑‑ they were the mentally ill cases that we often ‑‑ if ‑‑ if a person had the family and they'd say, we think George should have a jury, well, there was never any argument about it, you'd ‑‑ I'd go out and get six people to be a jury.

And the differences were things mostly in what ‑‑ what somebody was charged with or why somebody was there in it. KAREN BREWSTER: So when would somebody not have a jury? Can you think of an example? JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: When they didn't ask for one. Yeah. They didn't always have to have a jury, then, but then the commissioner decided. And that was in most cases, really.

Section 3: JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: Did you find ‑‑ I’m trying to think how to ask this. It seems to me that there was a kind of careful caretaking view by the court. In other words, it wasn't a heavy‑duty adversary, these cases were not a heavy‑duty adversary kind of case. JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: No. No. JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: Is that right?

JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Right. Because sometimes there was no other lawyer in Nome either. So you would ‑‑ so the commissioner would make a decision. I was commissioner for a while, and there were others that were ‑‑ that were the commissioner, and ‑‑ and they were pretty competent people, and could say ‑‑ to say in good faith, I don't think that there's anything wrong with George, why he should go to jail, he didn't do very much, you know, so ‑‑ so you're discharged. And then there maybe was something that was much, much more serious. We had a ‑‑

JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: Well, I have to ask you, Judge, was there anything in law school that prepared you for doing sanity cases? JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: No. What about you? JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: Not me either. And I still don't think there is. JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: No.

KAREN BREWSTER: I'm wondering about the Native versus non‑Native component. And Nome's a mixed community. And how many cases were Natives or how many were Non‑Natives on the sanity cases? Do you have a sense of that? JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: It was about 50/50 is my thoughts.

There weren't just ‑‑ there just weren't a great overabundance of the sanity cases, we had them occasionally, but once in awhile they were involved with the Native, and once in awhile it was a Caucasian. They were all treated the same.

JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: Did you ever use interpreters? Did you have people that ‑‑ that didn't understand English and they had to have assistance? JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Yes. Yes, once in awhile. I remember a case I was trying before the District Court, and the ‑‑

we had the Judge, Judge Hodge, had ‑‑ had brought an interpreter in because he didn't think that the ‑‑ that the case was being heard right, and it ‑‑ and a juror who was Native had stood up and said, he's not interpreting right, and he pointed to the interpreter. So that ‑‑ that threw the case into a tizzy, of course.

And so they ‑‑ the judge took him in chambers and talked to him, and he said, no, sometimes I don't understand how to interpret it into the ‑‑ into Inupiat. So that happened once in awhile. Not often.

JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: How about in the sanity cases, do you ever remember people that didn't speak English? JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Oh, yes. Uh‑hum. JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: And how would ‑‑ how would you handle those as a marshal or a commissioner or ‑‑ JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Well, you'd usually have ‑‑ have appointed a lawyer for them.

Section 4: JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: Judge, did you feel like for the people that were mentally ill, did you feel like generally their interests were being served by the system that was evaluating? JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Yes, I really did. Nobody was pushed through.

And almost entirely when ‑‑ when a person in that position, the family came to their rescue, came into court with them and ‑‑ and would ‑‑ and would say, you know, we're ‑‑ I'm his mother or something, and so we're here just to see that everything's all right. And that was fine, when I was commissioner, it was a fine system. It worked.

JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: It sounds to me like the system really did act as a filter somewhat. JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Yeah. JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: Some went, some did not. JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Yeah. Right. Uh‑hum. KAREN BREWSTER: Do you feel like the system continued to work after you moved on to becoming a Federal Judge?

JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Oh, yeah, there was commissioners after me, and so as far as I know, uh‑hum. And, of course, when after ‑‑ after I was commissioner, I was in private practice, and then when ‑‑ when I left private practice, why, that's when we left Nome and went to Juneau, and I was appointed by Governor Egan to the Superior Court. So...

JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: Is there anything else about these sanity cases and your vast experience that you think is a good thing for us, other people to know about what happened in Alaska? JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Well, what happened in Alaska was I ‑‑ what I always felt was a very fair proceeding. No ‑‑ nobody was brought in to a proceeding to involve mental ‑‑ mental ability.

JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: A good due process system? JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Uh‑hum. Yes. JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: That you saw. JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Yes, I saw it. And I tried to very ‑‑ very sincerely to be part of it in the sense that that's the way we treated the people in the court with ‑‑ with due process ‑‑ sincerely with due process. Nobody got railroaded, nobody got pushed and, you know, aside or anything for any reason.

Everybody, as far as I can recall, got ‑‑ got fair shakes. JUDGE NIESJE STEINKRUGER: Thank you for your time today. JUDGE JAMES VON DER HEYDT: Thank you. Thank you for coming. KAREN BREWSTER: Thank you very much.