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Justice Buell Nesbett, Part 1

Judge Buell Nesbett was interviewed on July 26, 1982 by Dr. Claus Naske in Solana Beach, California. Buell Nesbett was born in New Mexico in 1910 and came to Alaska in September 1945. Prior to working as a private attorney in Alaska, he worked as a radio operator in the Merchant Marines and served in the Navy. In 1959, he was appointed as the first Chief Justice of the Alaska State Supreme Court. He served in this capacity until his retirement in 1970. He was severely injured in an airplane crash that took him away from the bench for many months of recovery and after which he wore a patch over his right eye. In this interview, Judge Nesbett talks about Alaska’s early legal community, the judiciary article in the state’s constitution, establishment of the state court system, getting courtroom and office space, becoming a judge, and the decision about the location of the Supreme Court. This interview continues on tape number Oral History 82-68-05.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 82-68-04

Project: Judges of Alaska
Date of Interview: Jul 26, 1982
Narrator(s): Justice Buell Nesbett
Interviewer(s): Claus Naske
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska State Library, Institute of Museum and Library Services
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

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


Background information and working as a radio operator

Working and his education

Officer in the Navy during WWII

Commander of the "Atlas," a landing craft repair ship

End of the war and retiring from the Navy

Moving to Alaska in 1945 and practicing law in Judge Dimond's court

Appointed magistrate as a part time job for 5 years

Some cases that stand out in his memory

Anchorage before statehood

Appointed to be the referee in bankruptcy for the Territory of Alaska

Justice system before statehood

First Bar Association meetings

Alaska's Constitutional Convention and the judiciary article

Alaska statehood and the new government

Becoming the first Chief Justice

Setting up the courts in Alaska

Determining the location of the Alaska Supreme Court

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.


CLAUS NASKE: Live at home?
BUELL NESBETT: Uh-huh. I was born in the Territory of New Mexico in nineteen hundred and ten and I lived there for some years on a ranch, later moved into Albuquerque, finished high school and most of one year at the University of New Mexico.

This was during the depression and I was restless and wanted to see the world and I didn’t have any money, of course, or means of doing it so I decided to become a radio operator and sale in the Merchant Marines.

To do this I had to travel to San Francisco, which I did and attend the school there. It was a six month course before the school would give you permission to take the federal examination.

CLAUS NASKE: Was a license needed for a radio operator?
BUELL NESBETT: Yes. To be a licensed radio operator, I attended two months and went up and took the examination without the school’s permission and passed it.

Eventually I was assigned to a passenger liner running to Hawaii, South Seas, and Australia and New Zealand.

I left that position to take a position as radio operator on another ship, which was going around the Pacific on a long cruise and I wanted to see the world, as I said. So I gave up a good position to take another minor position in order to travel.

After that was over, I was assigned to a cadet ship six months around the world cruise and when that cruise was over, I was offered a position in the radio company show station.

CLAUS NASKE: What company was that, do you know?
BUELL NESBETT: Mackay Radio, a branch of IT&T.

BUELL NESBETT: I jumped at the opportunity because I wanted to go back to school. I was assigned to a student station at Half Moon Bay, California just south of San Francisco.

So I used to trade all my day watches, we had rotating watches there, for night watches and I attended Stanford then during the day.

I was taking radio engineering, which was a follow-up on my course in New Mexico which had been electrical engineering.

After a year I was transferred to the company’s transmitting station in Palo Alto as a fifth engineer for the large trans Pacific transmitters and trans continental and so forth.

I could still attend school. I traded watches there in order to do so. So I had three years at Stanford.

Then --
CLAUS NASKE: Was it undergraduate school now?
CLAUS NASKE: Law school?
BUELL NESBETT: I didn’t have a degree.

I never did get a B.S. degree or any other kind of degree from college. But -- so I had the opportunity through a federal district judge who lived in Palo Alto, to go to the Department of Justice as a probation and parole officer.

The federal judge had taken a liking to me and his son was in the same Navy Reserve unit that I was.

I jumped at the chance and moved to San Francisco and commenced attending night law school at San Francisco Law School.

They offered a full year course as compared to the ordinary college three year course in order to get a degree.

I worked during the day and attended school at night for the prescribed time and graduated as valedictorian of the class in 1941 I believe it was.

CLAUS NASKE: Were you married by that time?

CLAUS NASKE: When did you get married?
BUELL NESBETT: I can’t tell you the year.

It must have been --
CLAUS NASKE: In the 30’s, it must've been --
BUELL NESBETT: Yeah, it was in the 30’s, probably, '37, ’36 or ‘7 maybe.

No, it must have been before that because Ray is -- well, he's 43 years old.
BUELL NESBETT: Wow! I didn't think --
CLAUS NASKE: No, I just --
BUELL NESBETT: -- you’ll edit all this, of course.

CLAUS NASKE: Yeah, oh yeah.
BUELL NESBETT: Alright, so -- but I had already been ordered to active duty in the Navy by reason of having been a Reserve officer at the time I graduated.

So when I graduated from law school I was wearing a Naval uniform and on duty in San Francisco at the Communications Center.

It wasn’t long after my graduation, perhaps two or three months, that I was ordered to duty on a destroyer being built in San Francisco.

I served on that destroyer for one year up in the Aleutian Islands. At that time the Navy wanted destroyer officers for command positions in the amphibious force.

BUELL NESBETT: So I volunteered. Our destroyer was in Adak at the time when I found out about it. One year in the Aleutians was enough to me, I tell you, on a destroyer.

BUELL NESBETT: But -- so I was accepted immediately and I went to the amphibious training course in Virginia and wound in command of a tank planning ship.

Then later I was assigned to command of a ship that was to be converted to motor torpedo boat carrier.

My officers and crew joined that ship in Chicago so we sailed the ship down the Illinois River and the Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans where we outfitted.

Took it around to Baltimore to be converted. To our surprise we were all detached from the ship and assigned to the USS Atlas, a landing craft repair ship.

So this ship was a new one and we took it to Chesapeake Bay and ship it down and got all ready to go to New Guinea.

The night before we sailed they changed the orders and we were ordered to England.

So all our quartermasters and navigator rushed to shore to get the charts to get us over there because we didn’t have anything that would take us north of Connecticut.

But we sailed on time and after zigzagging back and forth across the Atlantic we wound up in Willow.

After a short time there we went to Falmouth, England and spent a number of months up the Falmouth River converting landing craft.

The conversion was a high secret, but what it amounted to was a means of lowering the bow door on the landing craft so that when the tanks rolled off they wouldn’t break the sustaining chains.

BUELL NESBETT: The reason this had to be done was because of the gradient of the particular beach we were going to required that.

BUELL NESBETT: And it was a secret but we did all of that without knowing the reason at the time.

From there we went to Plymouth and from Plymouth on D-Day we went across with the assault force and took our position behind the harbor of artificial -- a harbor created by the sinking of large ocean freighters and such.

And we stayed there 90 days repairing landing craft. And that was on Utah Beach.

BUELL NESBETT: It was a very trying tour of duty and after a time it became necessary to take a certain percentage of the officers and crew and send them back to England for rehabilitation.

BUELL NESBETT: And then bring them back on board. After that we went to Plymouth and anchored up the Tamar River and spent a months there repairing landing craft.

We established quite a good record as a repair ship as compared with the British Navy -- British Navy Yard which was just down the river from us.

The Atlas had every means of repairing and replacing landing craft.

For example, we had a long assembly line to work on diesel engines and they would travel along this assembly line and be taken apart and parts checked and replaced by the time it reached the end of the assembly line.

We had diving crews, underwater welding crews, pattern makers, molders, radar repairmen -- radar repairmen, radio repairmen, ship fitters, all of that.

CLAUS NASKE: Uh-huh. Quite complete outfit.
BUELL NESBETT: Quite a complete outfit. It was a crew of about 325 and it was outfitted for invasions.

BUELL NESBETT: After our tour in the Plymouth, we were then ordered to Newport News, Virginia for some conversion to be done on the ship and then to the Pacific.

Before going to Pacific we went up to Rhode Island and picked up some large pontoons which would be used in the beachhead in Japan.

They were welded on the side of the ship. It created an odd scene to see that ship almost by dwarfed by huge steel pontoons.

Around the canal to San Diego and some more work there and we started out for Hawaii and Enewetak was our goal.

At that time then I had command of a task unit of four such ships.

We reached Hawaii -- before we reached Hawaii they had dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

BUELL NESBETT: And the air was full of Japan surrender predictions. Sure enough they did surrender.

BUELL NESBETT: So here we're in Honolulu with the war over with. The Navy was prepared and they immediately sent out notices that officers and men with certain number of points calculated on the length of service would be eligible to be released and I was certainly eligible.

I had never had any leave of absence in five years and had been constantly on duty. So I applied and was relieved.

Came back to San Francisco on a carrier, the Saratoga, and walked into the Federal District Judge’s office and he said well, great, I’ve got a swell job for you.

In the meantime, of course, I had been admitted to the bar in Alaska -- in California.

BUELL NESBETT: He had a job with a large trial firm there and they were going to start me at a very good salary for an experienced lawyer, but that is when I broke the news.

I said, judge, I’ve had enough of big cities and after five years in that Navy I’m going to Alaska where I can hunt and fish a little and maybe practice a little law, I don’t know.

He said I’ll tell you what I will do. I will have them hold that job open six months for you and when you get tired of Alaska, come on back.

Well, that never happened. I was glad I went to Alaska and it was everything I had hoped it would be.

CLAUS NASKE: You said after the war, it must have been late 1945 that you went up?
BUELL NESBETT: September ’45.

BUELL NESBETT: I went to Ketchikan and looked it over. Then I went to Juneau and I had decided then that I would practice in Alaska if I could.

I wanted to see all the cities, but I also visited Attorney General Ralph Rivers in Juneau and he told me as soon as I was ready to take the bar exam in Alaska to let him know and he’d give me a special examination.

From Juneau, I went to Anchorage and I hadn’t been around Anchorage very long until I decided that was the place I wanted to be.

So I asked Judge Anthony Dimond, who was the US District Judge if he would supervise a special examination, which he readily agreed.

Ralph Rivers was as good as his word, he sent the examination up and I took it on December 27 of ’45. Just as soon as I had the 90 days residence in Alaska.

You see I didn’t have five years of practice anywhere so I wasn’t entitled to reciprocity.

I understand that I made a very high grade on the examination and Rivers was quite pleased so I was admitted in Judge Dimond's court.

In the meantime, I had met John Manders in Anchorage who had gone to the same law school I went to and he wanted a partner there and so I worked in his office two or three months.

That was enough of that. I decided I better go off on my own, so I did that and I stayed off on my own in the practice of law until Stanley McCutcheon and I began sharing cases and finally the situation became so complicated that we decided to create a partnership.

CLAUS NASKE: Where did you specialize in first when you started doing practicing?
BUELL NESBETT: Well in those days you didn’t --
CLAUS NASKE: Well you --
BUELL NESBETT: Specialize. We took anything that came through the door.

CLAUS NASKE: Were there many lawyers in Anchorage?
BUELL NESBETT: No, there were only eight when I went there.
CLAUS NASKE: Only eight, huh?
BUELL NESBETT: Only eight.
CLAUS NASKE: Unbelievable.

BUELL NESBETT: Yes, I can almost -- I can name them all, but --
CLAUS NASKE: Would you do that?

BUELL NESBETT: Yes. Eric Davis, Renfrew, Manders, Harold Butcher just arrived and was a judge. There was another gentleman named Roach. There was John Hellenthal arrived at the same time I did. He had been in the service.

Then Clyde Ellis arrived out of the service. John Latherman (phonetic) arrived out of the service and Warren Cutty (phonetic) was practicing then, that was before Dan Cutty’s time and Ed Arnell.

Those are the only lawyers there and they said to me, don’t know if you can make it there are so many lawyers here.

But I hadn’t opened my office until I had them walking in and out and I couldn’t afford a secretary, so I did all my own typing at night. I was typing wills and contracts.

I even did some tax work on simple cases. When you have to, you'd be surprise what you are can learn to do to make a dollar.

Stanley McCutcheon and I were partners for eleven years, a very happy relationship. In all our eleven years we never had a heated quarrel, occasionally differences of opinion, but nothing serious that's for sure.

I hadn’t been in Anchorage -- practicing in Anchorage been a matter of months until Municipal Judge Earl Cooper resigned to become --

to become I believe it was an assistant US Attorney.

BUELL NESBETT: Somehow or other I was appointed magistrate. In those days they wasn’t elected. The council appointed them, so I was appointed magistrate in a matter of months.

That was a part-time job. I held that job for perhaps five years.
CLAUS NASKE: Uh-huh. It was in the fee system, right?
BUELL NESBETT: No, no fee system, just a state salary.

BUELL NESBETT: It was a -- it was a rough court in those days, let me tell you. The town was rip-roaring wide open. We had some unusual cases there.

CLAUS NASKE: Could you recall some of the most spectacular ones? And that -- when you say the kind of town that you found and later impressed you?

BUELL NESBETT: Our police chief was named White. I forget his first name, but he was later fired, but he was fired for taking a Negro suspect into his office,

pulling his gun and telling him to dance, shooting through the floor, things like that.
CLAUS NASKE: Oh, my God.

BUELL NESBETT: One time we had a case in the City Court against a bar called the Village Bar.

Jimmy Sumpter (phonetic) owned it and he had a whole bunch of girls working there as dancers and drink -- what do you call them?

So John Helinthal represented Jimmy Sumpter. Okay, so I showed up in the court at one o’clock to try the case and there trips in Jimmy Sumpter with 15 of the call girls from the Village Bar.

John Helinthal was going to make a big farce out of the trial.

BUELL NESBETT: So I forget what procedural question arose, but I figured I better establish my control right now or it wasn’t going to last.

And I was lucky I was able to do it and pretty soon they all trooped out and Jimmy Sumpter paid his fine for whatever his charge was.

Another time White's son was on the force and there was an old poker around Anchorage. He was always getting picked up for drunkenness.

He was harmless as the world -- as anybody in the world, but on this particular occasion they took him down to the general quarters to put him behind the bars and he rebelled.

And I understand that sometimes happened. It is a physiological thing. As soon as they see the bars, they rebel.

This old gentlemen rebelled and White's son just beat him up something unmercifully and charged him with resisting arrest.

He'd already been arrested. So it wasn’t a very good charge to deal with that stage of the proceeding, but anyway it came to trial.

Jerry Williams then represented the defendant. I listened to all the evidence and I thought the officer had gone far beyond anything that was warranted.

Was is resisting arrest or resisting an officer, something. Anyway, I found him guilty of that and fined him one dollar. The police department went straight up in arms.

So the police chief went to the chairman of the police committee on the city council and they called a special meeting of the council for six o’clock that night.

In the meantime, I'd left the city court and was in trial at the district court. So when I got back to the office at five o’clock there was a note that said appear at six.

So I appeared at six and we were there til two a.m.

Deacon Brown and some -- and one or two others. They were all in sympathy with the police department.

They said, either Nesbett's fired or we walk off the job. So I told my side of the story and the thing went back and forth and back and forth.

White told his and I have always given Louis Agfeffer (phonetic) credit for what happened because he was the most level headed member of the council.

When the thing wound up at -- after midnight, I had been given a fifty dollar a month raise and White wound up fired.

Well, those are the only two cases I can remember at the moment, but --

CLAUS NASKE: Physically what kind of a town was Anchorage?
BUELL NESBETT: Well, 4th Avenue was paved.
BUELL NESBETT: But Fifth Avenue was not neither of any of the streets outside of that area paved.

CLAUS NASKE: Could you estimate the population at the time?
BUELL NESBETT: I've never estimated it on my own, but from what I heard at that time from the sources I believe were correct, it was between nine and eleven thousand.

BUELL NESBETT: If you tried to drive on the streets out beyond Ninth Avenue during the rainy season you were really in trouble because there were all sorts of mud holes and tricky spots.

Very few people had an automobile, I know, it was almost a year before I could buy an old secondhand Plymouth from anybody.

So people who had automobiles were lucky. People who had an apartment were extremely lucky because housing was absolutely almost unavailable.

CLAUS NASKE: Uh-huh. Where did you live?
BUELL NESBETT: I was living at the Anchorage Hotel at the time.

CLAUS NASKE: Is that the Westward now?
BUELL NESBETT: Yeah, I guess. It was torn down and the Westward was built there. Later I moved out to a little house, a dumpy little house.

CLAUS NASKE: But you never homesteaded in the Anchorage area?
BUELL NESBETT: I never homesteaded, no. I filed a claims on land as a recreation site later at Nancy Lake.

BUELL NESBETT: But I never homesteaded. So, as I say, Stan and I were practicing together by that time and let him do the city court matters and it was on a part-time basis.

BUELL NESBETT: The position as referee in bankruptcy for the entire territory came open and, of course, Stanley was politically influential and asked me if I would be interested in it. And I thought it would be and so I was also appointed then part-time referee in bankruptcy for the territory.

CLAUS NASKE: Who made the appointment then?
BUELL NESBETT: It was made in Washington.
CLAUS NASKE: So, it was a federal appointment.
BUELL NESBETT: It was a federal appointment

BUELL NESBETT: There was quite a backlog of cases and it took me quite a while to get them straightened out, all the way from Ketchikan, Petersburg, Juneau, right on up to Nome.

CLAUS NASKE: What years were you appointed, do you remember, roughly?
BUELL NESBETT: Can’t tell you. Can't tell you.

BUELL NESBETT: It was a six year appointment and I served the six years and when my time was up, Judge Fuller, who was a Republican reappointed me.

I was a Democrat, at that time, but I only stayed there perhaps a year.

BUELL NESBETT: And resigned it. I got acquainted with all the lawyers in Alaska through that because I had to hold hearings in all the cities and they’d present their cases and I became quite familiar with almost everybody practicing in Alaska at that time. That was before the general influx of lawyers after statehood.

CLAUS NASKE: How, you know, so you practiced law now for a number of years and you worked in different levels -- you worked on the municipal level and you also dealt with the territorial courts, how would you summarize the institutional arrangements prior to statehood?

BUELL NESBETT: Well, as you know, there were four judicial districts and each district was supposed to have a judge. Those judges were appointed on the basis of their politics. Almost entirely.

Well, of course, (inaudible), too, out of Washington for four year terms, that’s all. And I think there, at the time there was no judge in Nome so other judges -- territorial district judges would go up there and take care of the small case load that had might have developed.

Each one of the cities, however, had a very nice United States District courtroom, clerk of the courts facilities and all of those things that it takes to conduct a court.

Towards the end of the territorial court lifespan, the courts in Anchorage and Fairbanks became totally overloaded.

BUELL NESBETT: There was such a caseload that it was impossible for one judge to take care of it. And so Judge Dimond in Anchorage used to have Walter Hodge come down from Nome when he was in Nome.

Judge Pratt came down maybe once or twice from Fairbanks. Judge Fuller who was in Juneau used to come up quite a lot and help out in trying those cases.

Still the United States District Court in Anchorage and Fairbanks was totally overloaded with cases at the time statehood occurred.

BUELL NESBETT: I would say, the quality of judges was pretty good considering that they were -- that politics came first and considering their appointment.
CLAUS NASKE: But the system was inadequate because of the needs of Alaskans, is that correct?

BUELL NESBETT: It -- it became inadequate and just became inadequate in Anchorage and Fairbanks after I had arrived there. Business picked up. Lawsuits increased.

CLAUS NASKE: Post-war period.
BUELL NESBETT: The Post-war period. Increased business, a sense of conflict, Judge Dimond just couldn’t cope with it in Anchorage, although he tried valiantly.

I enjoyed practicing before Judge Dimond and Judge Pratt (phonetic) and Judge Hodge.

BUELL NESBETT: Judge Fuller was a tough one, but, he was called the "hanging judge". By and large he was very strict in criminal cases. He didn’t deserve that appellation at all, but --
BUELL NESBETT: Defense lawyers will do that.

CLAUS NASKE: He was a great hunter too.

CLAUS NASKE: He was particularly interested in selling deer, I understand.
BUELL NESBETT: We always thought he had an obsession.
CLAUS NASKE: I’m happy you say that.

BUELL NESBETT: I was involved in a civil trial and it was postponed. He was trying in Anchorage to help Judge Dimond out and it was postponed to a later date because he had a bear down at -- somewhere around Nelchina Glacier.

BUELL NESBETT: He wanted to get another blue -- blue bear.

BUELL NESBETT: I think he had killed 54 bear up to that time, as I heard it. And it was on that bear hunt that his heart failed and he died.

CLAUS NASKE: Uh-huh. Were you at all involved in -- when you came there was no unified bar in Alaska. Was there a bar association at all? How did -- how

BUELL NESBETT: The first bar -- there was a bar meeting and I was invited right away and it was held in one of the night clubs in the corner.

BUELL NESBETT: And all the lawyers stayed around the bar until it was time to go and eat and he always presided. Nothing of any moment was ever considered. It was more or less a social get together and a drinking spree for those who drank.

It usually wound up around two, two thirty in the afternoon with not much accomplished. As the lawyers in town increased, well Hellenthal and I came in about the same time.

Claude Ellis (phonetic) showed up about that time out of the service. John Latherman (phonetic), then McCarrey was finally admitted. I think it took McCarrey two years to get the bar papers graded.

BUELL NESBETT: Before the grading moguls in each of the districts finally got his papers graded. I don’t know why. Incidentally that was something that worried me when I took the bar examination.

The examination papers and the questions were forwarded first to lawyer Robertson in Juneau and when he'd finally get around to it, he’d grade it.

Then he'd send it to Fairbanks perhaps and then Julian Hurley would get around to it why he’d grade them. Then he would send them to Nome and the judge there would take his time.

Then, of course, the Anchorage judge had to take his time and sometimes it took two years to get your papers graded after you'd taken the bar examination.

BUELL NESBETT: And that somewhat the reason McCarrey’s admission was delayed as long as it was. I decided that I didn’t want to lay around two years so I asked Judge Dimond and Attorney General Ralph Rivers if they would permit me to have the clerk of court make four copies of all the questions and answers and mail them out to all the graders simultaneously.

BUELL NESBETT: And, of course, that permission was given readily. Sounds like an improvement. It wasn’t as much of an improvement as it might seem because they still would take their time on it. So then I got people who were friendly with Robertson in Juneau and the judge here in Nome and Judge Pratt (phonetic) in Fairbanks to pry those people in getting graded. And here I was just out of the service waiting to practice law --

CLAUS NASKE: And living in a hotel.
BUELL NESBETT: Well, for (inaudible), I took the examination on December 27th and everything was buttoned up and I was admitted on about April 1st of '46 which was --

CLAUS NASKE: But it was still four months?
BUELL NESBETT: That was a world record for Alaska let me tell you.

BUELL NESBETT: Took a long time to get old Julian Hurley, as nice a guy as he was, in Fairbanks. We’d always wind up in trial of criminal cases and so on. Back to the point where I digressed --

CLAUS NASKE: You were talking about the unified bar, you know, that there was really -- it was more a social club.
BUELL NESBETT: There was no unified bar and the attendance at the bar luncheons gradually increased and by 19 -- in the 1950’s, probably ’55 or there abouts --

CLAUS NASKE: Yeah, '55 there was a house bill for that.

BUELL NESBETT: John Raider (phonetic) came to me and said that he represented a group -- I was practicing law at the time, that we’re not happy with the bar. It wasn’t doing anything. It was just a social drinking group and would I if I had the backing to run for president?

Judge Grigsby was the president by that time, officially. I said, well if I was able to pick my officers I would. So they backed me, but in the meantime a group came to me which represented -- which consisted of Wendell Kay and Roger Cremo and some of the others that were staunch Grigsby’ supporters.

BUELL NESBETT: He said George is an old timer and he was (inaudible), I guess and why not just run for the vice president and we will keep George as the honorary president. Which I readily agreed to.

So that's the way the election came out and so for the next five years I was vice president, but actually I conducted all the meetings and tried to do the things that caused the bar to do things that they should do. In the public interest.

During the Constitutional Convention the group decided we'd meet at one o’clock in the basement at a restaurant at Fifth and High Street, I believe it was

and from one until sometimes five or six in the afternoon we'd go over all of the provisions that had been forwarded to us by the Judiciary Committee at the Constitutional Convention and then make our recommendations back immediately.

CLAUS NASKE: Who were some of these people in the group?
BUELL NESBETT: George McLaughlin.

BUELL NESBETT: Was on the Judicial Committee -- Judiciary Committee of the Constitutional Convention and he was the one who forwarded all the information to us asking for our opinions and we would debate it and vote and just send him back our idea on it.

BUELL NESBETT: The people who took part in those discussions, let's see, all of the first Superior Court judges were always there, Plummer, well he was a US Judge, but Butcher, Earl Cooper, all those people. By that time there would be 25 and 30 at our meetings.

BUELL NESBETT: We did have quite a bit of influence on the judiciary article.

CLAUS NASKE: (Inaudible) what were some of these -- would say the provisions which your group influenced?

BUELL NESBETT: There are so many that I can’t remember any particular one.
CLAUS NASKE: Uh-huh. I mean the basic plans -- the New Jersey Plan?
BUELL NESBETT: The New Jersey plan was the basic plan and we agreed with it.

BUELL NESBETT: But there were lots of things that we expressed our opinion on. It wasn’t only judiciary either. There were lots of things that the convention would be doing in our areas that affected the judiciary, the public and we expressed our opinion on those too, after a debate and so on.

That went on for months. Tom Stewart, incidentally was secretary of the convention.

CLAUS NASKE: And would you all go out and lobby for passage of the constitution? It was in April there was an election. The ones that had been hammered out and all assigned to the delegates.

BUELL NESBETT: Did we as a group?
CLAUS NASKE: As a group did the Anchorage bar support the constitution?
BUELL NESBETT: They supported it, but I don’t recall that we made any speeches or run any advertisements in the newspaper.

CLAUS NASKE: Uh-huh. But you were fairly happy with the judicial article?
BUELL NESBETT: We were and there seemed to be little doubt but what the people would adopt it.

BUELL NESBETT: So there was hardly anybody stumping for it that I know of. There may have been, but I don’t recall.

CLAUS NASKE: Uh-huh. And one more question on that unified bar, I understand that the Territorial Legislature passed enabling legislation which set up the so-called unified bar to which every lawyer then had to belong?
BUELL NESBETT: That is right.

BUELL NESBETT: And I’m a little hazy on that. I remember when it went into effect. It was not --
CLAUS NASKE: ’55 to ’56 I think.

BUELL NESBETT: Yes. It didn’t make any difference at all in the way we ran our bar association in Anchorage. I am sure we complied with whatever was required in the way of these plans. I think it was more as you say, just an enabling act.

CLAUS NASKE: Okay, so here, you know the senate finally passes the Alaska Statehood Bill in June -- on June 30, 1958. Of course the constitution commission, I understand, people really had a feeling that statehood might be years off.

CLAUS NASKE: That is was sort of academic exercise --
CLAUS NASKE: That they were going through, but then all of a sudden it is and so all kinds of changes are imminent.

CLAUS NASKE: Now how were you involved in that? I mean obviously you must have known some of the political leaders. You said you were associated with Samuel McCutcheon who was a leading Democrat.

CLAUS NASKE: And how, you know, what were your activities during this period of time?
BUELL NESBETT: Prior to 1959?
CLAUS NASKE: Yeah, just, you know, up to your appointment.

BUELL NESBETT: Well, every time I would go to Washington, DC on cases I would always check in with Bob Bartlett and on those occasions I had to go to Washington as referee in bankruptcy I'd always check in and get the latest on the statehood bill and meet a lot of the senators. But --

CLAUS NASKE: So you knew Bartlett pretty well?
BUELL NESBETT: Oh, yes, very well.

BUELL NESBETT: But nothing was really done to bring the matter ahead until Alaska legislature voted to adopt the Tennessee Plan.

BUELL NESBETT: And after they voted to adopt the Tennessee Plan, Ernest Gruening and --
CLAUS NASKE: Bob Fulton (phonetic)
BUELL NESBETT: Bill Egan. Who were elected senators.
BUELL NESBETT: And Ralph Rivers was the elected representative.

BUELL NESBETT: Again, as I'd go to Washington on cases, I represented Alaska Airlines at that time and we were involved in attempts to get certificates for them to fly out of Alaska to Portland and Seattle.

I would always check in and find out what was going on. Actually what was going on was mostly whatever Ernest Gruening could cook up in the way of publicity for Alaska statehood because he was a live wire.

BUELL NESBETT: We got top billings and his imagination seemed to be almost unlimited, just the fact that he had almost unlimited friendship with influential senators.

There again I'd meet many of those senators and listen to him plug for it, but there wasn’t much I could do with Gruening in the picture and I didn’t try to do anything because it was all being done in Washington. It was a matter of convincing senators.

Ralph Rivers was busy. Bill Egan was fairly busy, but Gruening deserves most of the credit. What was done back then in my opinion.

BUELL NESBETT: That answer your question?
CLAUS NASKE: Yeah. And so statehood planning is a fact and everyone waits for Alaska's official admission in 1959, but in the meantime the elections and everything is sorted out, who becomes what, and Egan is elected the first governor.

CLAUS NASKE: He almost immediately falls ill. And --
BUELL NESBETT: Hugh Wade takes over.

CLAUS NASKE: And Hugh Wade takes over and but there was not -- not a moratorium but would you commentate that the state would assume full responsibility for the courts within a three year period of time or so -- implement?
CLAUS NASKE: The judicial article.

Then there was this test case. Something having to do with jurisdiction that arose.
BUELL NESBETT: That's right.

CLAUS NASKE: And could you explain what precipitated -- you know, how come the state to take over?
BUELL NESBETT: To the best of my memory I will, but Stevens -- Ted Stevens then was a solicitor with the Department of Interior in Washington, it's my understanding that he offered

a document carrying a lot of force and I forget just what document it was, providing for the transfer of jurisdiction. It could have been the --
CLAUS NASKE: The states executive order?
BUELL NESBETT: Executive order that you showed me a few minutes ago.

And he made a mistake in it and that mistake amounted to eliminating the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals as a Court of Appeals for the Territorial District Courts.

BUELL NESBETT: And I was going down to Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to argue a case and I was asked to argue that case, too, just because a friend of somebody, a pope or something.

And so I presented it to the three judges in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and they all agreed. So that meant that we had to get the State Court System organized just as soon as we could otherwise there was no Appellate Court to turn to.

BUELL NESBETT: I am just giving you the best I can remember on and this is quite a while ago.

CLAUS NASKE: Uh-huh. Well how, you know, as far as Egan the chief executive, when he has, you know, the 14,400 word constitution and he has to flush it out, so to speak. I mean that is the skeleton and, you know, how -- how did he decide, do you think, to make you chief justice? When were you first approached?

BUELL NESBETT: Well, in the beginning, like I say, at the time was head of the Anchorage bar and --
CLAUS NASKE: I mean, it was a choice job.

BUELL NESBETT: After statehood was granted, the bar associations met to nominate for the Judicial Council which was provided for us.

BUELL NESBETT: The Judicial Council, as you know, nominates judges to the governor and he appoints them and there must be at least two names for each position.

And I had told Wendell Kay and one or two of the other members of the Board of Governors before they went to Nome to meet. I said all I want is to be a member of the Judicial Council.

BUELL NESBETT: Well, they say, "no problem, no problem." Of course Bill was up there, too.
CLAUS NASKE: You didn’t go to Nome?
BUELL NESBETT: I wasn’t a member of the Board of Governors.
CLAUS NASKE: Yeah, right. Uh-huh.

BUELL NESBETT: They met in Nome and lo and behold the bar found out then that -- from the Third District, the lawyer nominee was Harry Stringer.

BUELL NESBETT: A person who was not considered active in bar or trial work or legal work of any kind, mostly a Republican politician. A nice enough fellow, but not entitled to represent the bar in an important position like that.

I didn’t get it at all. So the bar rose up in Anchorage and they were going to recall Wendell Kay.

BUELL NESBETT: Once -- when Kay backed down and Bill Stumpton (phonetic), Ketchikan. I think it was Monahan -- Monigo (phonetic) in Juneau said we will meet again and nominate someone else and we will meet and nominate again and we will nominate the person who gets the most votes. So the Anchorage bar conducted a vote.

BUELL NESBETT: A poll to see which lawyer should be on the Judicial Council and the only two candidates were Ray Plummer and me.

BUELL NESBETT: I got the most votes. But, the Board of Govenors met again and appointed Ray Plummer.

BUELL NESBETT: It was Wendell Kay again. He didn’t want me, anywhere.

BUELL NESBETT: Antagonism. I used to wind up in divisions like head of the bar or something else, that he always wanted and he didn’t get.

BUELL NESBETT: There was a sort of a rivalry and yet, we're friendly enough. I used to grab a file and try his cases for him when he was drunk, you know.

BUELL NESBETT: And the secretary'd come running around the corner and -- but there was that rivalry and another aspect of the thing. So, I asked Wendell, I said how come? I got the most votes. Your people were supposed to nominate the person with the most votes.

He said well, he was always pretty smooth, we figured you'd wind up with the judge anyway and so we just weren’t going to do it that way.

BUELL NESBETT: So that time I was on the Judicial Council, so I after I was turned down for the Judicial Council I thought well I’ll just throw my hat in the ring, so I did, I said -- to be a judge.

CLAUS NASKE: Do you know which kind you wanted to be?
BUELL NESBETT: I said either Superior or Supreme.

BUELL NESBETT: It didn't matter. So I didn’t expect to be Chief Justice, by any means, I thought some of the old timers like Monigo in Juneau, he was a front runner for it, you know. In fact at one time he used to introduce himself as the next Chief Justice of Alaska.

The Judicial Council met and as far as the Chief Justice was concerned they recommended Hodges and me.

BUELL NESBETT: And then all Superior Court -- no, and the other two justices. They weren’t selecting Superior Court judges at that time.

BUELL NESBETT: And so Bill Egan appointed me.
CLAUS NASKE: Do you know why?
BUELL NESBETT: I don’t know why.
CLAUS NASKE: Have you ever talked to him about it?
BUELL NESBETT: Oh, no, I wouldn’t ask him. I imagine the letter I wrote him had some influence on him.

BUELL NESBETT: I just said Dear Bill I understand my name is one of those before you and I said you might want to know something more in detail about me, although I knew Bill.
BUELL NESBETT: But not -- not real close.
BUELL NESBETT: Not like Stanley or some of the others did.

CLAUS NASKE: Were you a Democrat?
BUELL NESBETT: I was a Democrat, but I was never in to politics like, you know, say Stanley was, ex-speaker of the house and all that sort of thing, committees and I never did any of that. So I told him about my background and a kid in New Mexico.

CLAUS NASKE: Do you still have a copy of that letter?
CLAUS NASKE: Would it be possible to get one?
BUELL NESBETT: Oh, yeah, sure. Remind me of it.

BUELL NESBETT: And I told him --
CLAUS NASKE: So when were you appointed then?
BUELL NESBETT: It was about -- it was in July or August of ’59. I believe it was August. I’m not sure.

BUELL NESBETT: And Judge Dimond was appointed and Hodge was appointed . So I went down to Juneau to be sworn in and I went in to see Bill and he said well, what do you think we should do and what do you want to do?

He always stayed away from trying to put his nose into the courtrooms, I give him lots of credit for that. He said what shall we do? Activate just some of the courts or try to do the whole thing at once, you know. Provide for all the courts with the legislative act provided for. I said all of them. He said all right go ahead.

CLAUS NASKE: He gave you a free hand pretty much?
BUELL NESBETT: Well he didn’t give it to me because I had a free hand.

BUELL NESBETT: But I mean he didn’t try to influence me or butt into at all. Money in those days was important to the state. They didn’t have any oil revenues.
CLAUS NASKE: Yeah, very tight.

BUELL NESBETT: Very tight and I think I had just a little over $900,000 to get the court system into operation.
CLAUS NASKE: Oh, my God!

BUELL NESBETT: And that meant bringing quarters here and there and buying furniture for the judges and officers, clerks, and typewriters and machines and God knows what.

BUELL NESBETT: So we were pinched for money all the time. We were able to do it, but--

CLAUS NASKE: What were some of the steps that you took -- sort of progression, you first met with Egan and he said should we do all of them or just a few. You said let’s do all of them. He said okay. So what was your next step then? I mean you were the chief administrator -- what -- what --

BUELL NESBETT: My step was to get on the phone to Washington, DC because I knew that in order to get into quick operations we were going to have to have help from the federal government and using some their unused court space and some of their unused office space.

And so I talked to Warren Olney, Judge Warren's administrator and --
CLAUS NASKE: Chief Justice Warren?

BUELL NESBETT: Warren Olney, III was administrative director for all the US federal courts.
BUELL NESBETT: Quite a prestigious position and I went back there.

BUELL NESBETT: And talked again with him and then I -- excuse me I didn't know if I was supposed to --
CLAUS NASKE: No, that is okay.
BUELL NESBETT: Talked him into coming to Alaska and looking the situation over, which they did.

BUELL NESBETT: And they went to Ketchikan, Juneau, and Anchorage and Fairbanks and I pointed out to them -- in the meantime I determined what I wanted -- what I needed in order to get into operation.

It was -- Ketchikan was very simple. All we wanted to do was use the United States District Court there when US District Court wasn’t sitting, which was very seldom because the judge from Juneau might come down once every three months to take care of Ketchikan, in those days.

Then in Juneau, it was the same thing, to use the United States District Court courtroom until we could get a place of our own. We also and -- I missed another thing. In Anchorage it was quite a different thing. By that time they had built another United States District Court courtroom so they had one spare courtroom.

BUELL NESBETT: The visiting federal judges used it quite often. But what I wanted to do there was slash that big courtroom right in half.

BUELL NESBETT: And put, you know, mahogany, a nice partition in, seats and create a bench inside and that sort of qualified them and they said the General Accounting Office would have to approve that but they would try to help me. And I guaranteed we'd return it to them in exactly the same position the courtroom was before.

For the first day of court judge in Anchorage I had already canvassed the area and I had proposed that they give us -- or lent to us some reems in back of the court building and we tore out a position -- tore out a petition and build a judges base there and put chairs and so on in.

In Fairbanks, we wanted to use the -- no, in Fairbanks there was one Superior Court judge. We wanted some upstairs rooms in the Federal Building which we could convert --
CLAUS NASKE: In Fairbanks?

BUELL NESBETT: Which we could convert into a courtroom, at our expense and after working with the General Accounting Office for quite some time I got it all approved and we got right to work. Architects in Anchorage drew all the plans for splitting that big courtroom up and never charged us a cent. They just did it as a public service.

BUELL NESBETT: And so that gave us all the courtrooms we needed, but the recording office was another thing. In Anchorage we had to rent a whole building over on one of the side streets for our recording office and magistrate and probate.

CLAUS NASKE: What did you do in Fairbanks?
BUELL NESBETT: I’m trying to think. I think we did the same thing in Fairbanks, but I just can’t remember.

BUELL NESBETT: I'd sit down with Bailey Ruse (phonetic) after we got permission to do all these things and we we'd discuss what needed to be done and he was a go-getter and he would go out and do it, too.

BUELL NESBETT: I just don’t remember how much space we had to release in Fairbanks. But Nome was just simple, one District Court court -- courtroom was hardly ever used.

CLAUS NASKE: Uh-huh. He was there when Clyde Kestel (phonetic) (inaudible).
BUELL NESBETT: Custodian, he isn't, as far as I know.

CLAUS NASKE: Uh-huh. So you got the matter of space then okay, what about location of the Supreme Court itself?

BUELL NESBETT: We incurred quite a rental budget and then we had to buy typewriters, judges’ materials and equipment and hire secretaries and all of those things, dictating machines which meant running a very tight budget and in addition to the administrative director of courts, I had one man whose total responsibility was to keep track of the budget for me.

Every second day he came up to my office with his up-to-date figures on just how much he was doing when it was used, though not all the district reported it right away. How much was left in this or that fund that we had budgeted and all and then that way I was able to keep my hands right on the budget all the time.

Towards the end of the year I believe we had to transfer some funds in order to keep the jury trials going and slow down on some of the jury trials in one of the districts, but we got through the year with about $900 some odd thousand dollars without running any deficits.

CLAUS NASKE: That was a lot of money wasn’t it?
BUELL NESBETT: Yeah, so that got us off and running.

CLAUS NASKE: What did you decide about the location of the Supreme Court itself?
BUELL NESBETT: That was a hot potato let me tell you.
CLAUS NASKE: Tell me about it.

BUELL NESBETT: At that time there was a lot of agitation to move the capitol right off, you know, and start off with the state somewhere else. And of course the Juneau opposed it. And so, when I went to Juneau -- I went to Juneau as soon as I was appointed and I spent almost six months there.

CLAUS NASKE: Uh-huh. Did you move your family?
BUELL NESBETT: Oh, no. I’d go home every second week and then I'd be traveling around the state quite a bit, you know, with the administrative director and well like I mentioned there were a lot of things to do, such as sell the sound system to the lawyers.

CLAUS NASKE: I would like that also included in this, but at first that would be my next question, but first, you know, how did the Supreme Court -- the way it is now the different judges sitting in different -- I have some idea how it happened but I wanted to hear it.

BUELL NESBETT: The pressure on me to order the Supreme Court’s headquarters to be in Juneau was very great because I was around Juneau for -- quite a lot.

And I held off my decision until I did a survey of all the cases that were pending at the time statehood was granted in each court -- magistrates, as well as, the Superior Court, so, the District Court and in analyzing them it showed that 82% of all the court’s business was north of Cordova.

BUELL NESBETT: And as far as Appeals were concerned, which would be --