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Magistrate Arlene Clay, Part 2

This is a continuation of the interview with Magistrate Arlene Clay on January 25, 2012 by Karen Brewster and Barbara Hood at her apartment at the Primrose Retirement Community in Wasilla, Alaska. Arlene’s friend, John Murphy was also present at the interview. This is a continuation from tape number Oral History 2012-02-05, Part 1. In this part of the interview, Magistrate Clay talks about changes in Alaska's justice system, challenges and joys of being a magistrate, and working with other people in the court system.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2012-02-05_PT.2

Project: Judges of Alaska
Date of Interview: Jan 25, 2012
Narrator(s): Magistrate Arlene Clay
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster, Barbara Hood
Videographer: Karen Brewster
People Present: John Murphy
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.


Changes seen after living in Aniak for 67 years

Changes in the justice system

Magistrate travel to villages

Challenges of being a magistrate

Enjoyment of the job

Choosing to live in Aniak

Missing magistrate work


Working with other members of the court system

People taking on different roles in the courtroom

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: You lived in Aniak -- when you left Aniak --?

JOHN MURPHY: When she left. She'd been living there longer than anybody else.

KAREN BREWSTER: And you were the oldest? JOHN MURPHY: And she was the oldest.

ARLENE CLAY: I lived in Aniak for 67 years.


KAREN BREWSTER: You must have seen a lot of changes?

ARLENE CLAY: Definitely. Most of them not too good.


JOHN MURPHY: Is that on?

KAREN BREWSTER: Yep, we're on. We're rolling tape, so --

That was one of questions was how things changed in those 18 years you were a magistrate?

ARLENE CLAY: Well, you know, it changed so slowly that you really didn’t notice them too much.

But once they started to bring in housing -- you know, there's always somebody stateside that knew what the Native people wanted, and so they started building housing.

And I know some of the Native folks, and myself, tried to get them instead of building modern houses for them,

which they didn’t know how to take care of, just build them another little cabin where they're at.

No, they couldn’t do that. They had to do -- I think there's now at least three big housing projects in Aniak. KAREN BREWSTER: Wow!

ARLENE CLAY: And the Native people was told that they had to live in them.

Well, the housing projects are about three miles away from the village.

They had no way of -- since everybody lived along the village -- along the river they had no way of going fishing.

And they had no dogs, so they didn’t have to fish for the dogs all the time, but there's no way that they could -- they could get to the river to fish or anything.

There was no -- they didn’t have any transportation for them.

And I can tell you a real goodie if you want to hear about somebody coming up and --

KAREN BREWSTER: Sure. ARLENE CLAY: And telling what the people needed. Over at Anaktuvuk Pass? KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.

ARLENE CLAY: Of course, they're all on subsistence up there, you know, and somebody I don’t know who -- where he's from New York or Philadelphia came up there and saw how they were living.

And he said, "Oh my goodness, these people don’t have any flush toilets."

So he went back, and he sent out a whole bunch of flush toilets.

So when the Native people got them at Anaktuvuk they didn’t know what they were, and what they could use for, and, of course, they had no use for them,

so they tied their dogs to them.

KAREN BREWSTER: It's a good use for them.

ARLENE CLAY: Right. They used them, anyway.

KAREN BREWSTER: Did you see any changes within the justice system in Alaska while you were magistrate?

ARLENE CLAY: Well, the only thing is that they -- the whole process of -- all they do now is hold court like any court in Anchorage.

They don’t have all the recording and missing persons and all that stuff.

They don’t take care of any of that. They're just running as a regular court would be run in Anchorage.

KAREN BREWSTER: Do you think that's a change for the better or for the worst?

ARLENE CLAY: Well, I think it depends how you look at it.

If you look at it from the Native culture side, it wasn’t too good.

JOHN MURPHY: One of the changes that happened while you were there were -- was when a misdemeanor -- a defendant was entitled to a jury trial.

I think that changed while you were out there because for a while they didn’t -- they weren’t titled to a jury trial on a misdemeanor, and then the law changed, and they could have a jury.

ARLENE CLAY: That was -- yeah. A good point.

KAREN BREWSTER: And did that change -- the change John just talked about -- about being able to have a jury trial, did that change the way you did your job?

ARLENE CLAY: No. It was just the same, except we could hold a jury trial as if they asked for them on misdemeanors. KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.

ARLENE CLAY: We couldn’t handle any -- anything but misdemeanors. KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.

ARLENE CLAY: And what we could do, is we could hold a hearing and if there was evidence enough that he could be held for a higher court, the troopers would take him to Bethel. KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.

ARLENE CLAY: And they usually ended up in Anchorage anyway, but -- but, no.

KAREN BREWSTER: You traveled to all those villages in your area. ARLENE CLAY: Uh-huh.

KAREN BREWSTER: Do the magistrates still do that?

ARLENE CLAY: None of the other mag - did as far as I know.

They just had their own village.

KAREN BREWSTER: So when you traveled, you went by airplane to those villages, or did you --

ARLENE CLAY: Well, the troopers always come and pick me up in small planes.

KAREN BREWSTER: Right. You didn’t take your own boat and go up to Stony River to check something out? ARLENE CLAY: No. Uh-uh. No.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, I don’t think that the villages get that magistrates coming around any more like that.

ARLENE CLAY: Oh, no, they don’t.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. ARLENE CLAY: No, they don’t, no. No, magistrates don’t travel any more.

KAREN BREWSTER: They bring the people to -- ARLENE CLAY: Right.

KAREN BREWSTER: -- Aniak. I wonder how that's different for the carrying out of justice?

ARLENE CLAY: I can’t answer that.

KAREN BREWSTER: You haven’t thought about that.

JOHN MURPHY: I think the people liked to see you in the village.

When you had court in the village, I think the village -- a lot of the people liked that.

ARLENE CLAY: Yes, they did.

JOHN MURPHY: It was local. ARLENE CLAY: Right.

KAREN BREWSTER: Everybody knew you? ARLENE CLAY: Uh-huh.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Was there something that you found particularly hard about being a magistrate for so long?

ARLENE CLAY: There were some functions that weren’t as pleasant as others.

One being if a person drowned and the body was in the water for several months and they finally found the body.

Well, one time we had to -- a trooper came up and, of course, they always had to have me go down when somebody was found.

And one time, we had to take a cart and put underneath the body it was so -- it had been in the water for so long,

but things like that wasn’t pleasant, but they were there, and you had to do them.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. Because you lived in the community and knew everybody, were you able to separate being personally affected by the cases that came before you, or did they affect you personally?

ARLENE CLAY: No. No. I didn’t have any trouble with that.

KAREN BREWSTER: Is that what you needed to do to be able to --

ARLENE CLAY: Uh-huh. Right. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. I think it would have been a stressful job?

ARLENE CLAY: Probably at times.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Were there times you wanted to quit? ARLENE CLAY: No.

KAREN BREWSTER: Never? Why did you like it so much?

ARLENE CLAY: Well, because of -- I knew the people -- knew their culture and somebody else coming in might not.

I know, we had one trooper that came in later years that he didn’t understand that we had to understand the Native culture.

And he was just all for holding court and that was it, but so --

KAREN BREWSTER: Why did you choose to stay living in Aniak for so long?

A lot of white people after a few years they pick up and leave?

ARLENE CLAY: Well, we liked Aniak and it was the one place in the world that I found that I liked to live, so I decided to stay.

KAREN BREWSTER: Sounds like the people of Aniak liked you, too? ARLENE CLAY: Yeah, I guess they did.

KAREN BREWSTER: They must have.

ARLENE CLAY: As a matter of fact, the Native people used to tell me "I never think of you as a white person."

KAREN BREWSTER: That's a wonderful compliment.

ARLENE CLAY: Yeah, it was. Uh-huh.

KAREN BREWSTER: So do you miss the work of being a magistrate?

ARLENE CLAY: Yeah. Uh-huh.

KAREN BREWSTER: What do you miss about it?

ARLENE CLAY: All of it.

KAREN BREWSTER: So yet -- ARLENE CLAY: Yeah, I miss going to the other villages, you know.

KAREN BREWSTER: That fits with Barb’s question, why did you retire?

ARLENE CLAY: I thought it was time. I was 75, no, 65, and so I just retired -- decided to.

KAREN BREWSTER: I can imagine that you at 65 were still in your prime.

JOHN MURPHY: She wouldn’t have moved here if she hadn't had some medical issues.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, I say you were still living by yourself in your cabin, weren’t you?


KJOHN MURPHY: Until she was about ninety-six.

KAREN BREWSTER: That's amazing.

JOHN MURPHY: Ninety-seven.

KAREN BREWSTER: It's inspiring for all of us younger people. So --

ARLENE CLAY: I sure liked the Elders. The Elder people -- they were really wonderful folks.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. And you were there at the right time to meet a lot of those wonderful people. Yeah.

ARLENE CLAY: Yep, all changed now.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. Well, do you have any questions, Barb?

BARBARA HOOD: I just want to --

KAREN BREWSTER: You might have to ask me to ask. I don’t know if she can hear you?

BARBARA HOOD: Right. I’m so sorry. I have this scratchy throat. I was just wondering if there were people in the court system she particularly remembers or particularly worked with?

KAREN BREWSTER: I asked Barbara -- Barb has a question, but you hear me better than you hear her.

So she was asking whether there were any people in the court system that you remember particularly?

You mentioned Nora and Sadie, but were there other people?

ARLENE CLAY: Well, some of the judges in -- from Anchorage would come out.

We had an accountant that came out once a year. People from --

and, of course, when we were in Anchorage for a seminar we met quite a few of the court people.

KAREN BREWSTER: Was there any of those judges in particular you remember that --


KAREN BREWSTER: What was he like?

ARLENE CLAY: Oh, he was an excellent judge and he came out and visited my court, and most of them do --

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. ARLENE CLAY: Don’t do that.

KAREN BREWSTER: Did you take any of those judges to the villages and -- ARLENE CLAY: Oh, no. KAREN BREWSTER: No. ARLENE CLAY: Uh-uh.

KAREN BREWSTER: Teach them about life in Alaska?


ARLENE CLAY: Well, I don’t know if that's all that you wanted.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, that's wonderful. I really appreciate it and I thank you for preparing so well in advance.

To have written it out like that. Were there any other ones you had in mind?

JOHN MURPHY: I can tell you a personal story about -- I don’t know if you want it on camera, but -- KAREN BREWSTER: We're --

JOHN MURPHY: Just a case that she and I had in the village when one of the villages when we were --

when they were entitled to a jury trial and back then the troopers would act as a district attorney, they would -- that the attorneys never did come out.

And so the troopers would pick the jury and she was holding court in her robe and I was picking the jury and everybody was related and the defendant had a legal question.

And he asked her and she called me over and she said, "Put your hat down on the table and go over there and give that man some legal advice. You're not a trooper now."

So I went over there, listened to him, gave him some legal advice, came back, put my hat back on, and we finished picking the jury, and he was happy, and --

ARLENE CLAY: And that was things you could do back in those days.


KAREN BREWSTER: Everybody could do a little bit of everything.

JOHN MURPHY: Well, she could make decisions, you know, but -- Yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: All right. Well, thank you.