Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program

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Officials of U. S. Dist. Court, Valdez, Alaska, Judge E. E. Cushman presiding This Project Jukebox highlights stories related to the history of judges in Alaska. Prior to Statehood, courts in Alaska were part of the Territorial justice system run by the federal government and cases were decided by Municipal and Village Magistrates and U.S. Commissioners, many of whom did not have a legal background. Court was held in roadhouses, in kitchens or living rooms of village households, or aboard Revenue Cutter ships patrolling the coastline. With statehood in 1959, a new state justice system was created under the terms of the Judiciary Article of Alaska's new constitution which formalized, unified, and professionalized the judiciary. Three Supreme Court justices and eight Superior Court judges were initially appointed. The District Court was established in 1968, and the Court of Appeals in 1980. Magistrates continue to serve as judicial officers in the District Courts, but they do not need to be lawyers and have more limited jurisdiction than a judge. Magistrates hear small claims or misdemeanor cases. For many residents of rural Alaska, magistrates may still be their first point of contact with the state's judicial system.

First court system of the State of Alaska

The experiences of our state's early judges shed light on the social, political, and cultural fabric of life in Alaska in a new way. The recordings represent various aspects of judgeship, including: establishment and early days of the various aspects of the court system, the judiciary article, judicial selection and retention, the day to day life of being a judge, joys and challenges of being a judge, relationships with the community, and rural justice.

Photo of native woman being sworn in by judge

People who visit this Website can access visual and oral resources highlighting aspects of the history of Alaska's court system. The site includes recordings from the Oral History Collection at Elmer E. Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Joint Archives of the Alaska Court System and Alaska Bar Association in Anchorage, as well as historic photographs and film clips from the UAF collections, the Alaska Court System, other Alaska institutions, and personal family collections. The Judges of Alaska Project Jukebox was created in 2012. The information in this project reflects the context of the original creation date. Some information may now be out of date.


Justice Alex Bryner Justice Alexander Bryner

Justice Alex Bryner was born in China in 1943 to Russian immigrant parents and grew up in Menlo Park, California. He earned a law degree from Stanford University in 1969. He came to Alaska in 1969, first serving as a law clerk for Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice, George Boney, then worked in Anchorage as a public defender, in private practice, as a district court judge, as the US Attorney for Alaska, and in 1980 was appointed to the state’s newly formed Court of Appeals. He served as the... Read More

Judge Victor Carlson Judge Victor Carlson

Born in 1935, Victor Carlson grew up on a farm in Michigan, served in the Navy at Adak Island, and went to law school at the University of Michigan.  He came to Alaska in 1962 to work for Attorney General Ralph Moody. He went on to work for the Attorney General’s office in Fairbanks, was attorney for the Greater Anchorage Area Borough, was the first Public Defender in Anchorage when the agency was established in 1969, was Superior Court judge in Sitka, and was Superior... Read More

Arlene Clay Magistrate Arlene Clay

Born in 1912 and originally from Maine, Arlene Clay came to Nome, Alaska in 1944 with her husband, Earl, to work for the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) . In 1946, they moved to Aniak, Alaska to serve another two years with the CAA. They enjoyed life along the Kuskokwim River, so they made Aniak their home. Arlene served as Aniak’s magistrate from 1960 to 1977, and lived in a cabin on the Kuskokwim River for 67 years until her move to a retirement community in Wasilla in early 2011.... Read More

Judge Beverly Cutler Judge Beverly Cutler

Beverly Cutler grew up near Washington, DC and earned a law degree from Yale Law School. She came to Alaska in 1974 as a research attorney for the Alaska Judicial Council. She went on to be an assistant public defender, a District Court judge in Anchorage, and in 1982 was appointed the first judge of the new Superior Court in Palmer. She was the first woman appointed as a Superior Court judge, and retired in 2009.

Judge James Fitzgerald Judge James Fitzgerald

Born in 1920 in Portland, Oregon, James Fitzgerald worked as a fireman and served in the US Marine Corps before going to law school at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. He graduated in 1951 and moved to Alaska shortly thereafter. He was Assistant U.S. Attorney in Ketchikan and U.S. Attorney in Anchorage, Special Legal Counsel to Governor Egan, city attorney in Anchorage, and State Commissioner of Public Safety. He was one of the first eight judges appointed to Alaska’s Superior Court... Read More

Judge Nora Guinn Judge Nora Guinn

Nora Guinn was born in 1920 in Akiak, Alaska to Joe and Anna Venes. She was educated at Eklutna Boarding School, and high school in Portland, Oregon. She was a BIA school teacher in Tununak, and a United States Commissioner, deputy magistrate and district court magistrate in Bethel. In 1968, she was appointed the first judge of the new District Court in Bethel. She was the first woman and first Alaska Native to hold such a position. Being a fluent Yupik speaker, she would often conduct... Read More

Judge Michael Jeffery Judge Michael Jeffery

Born in 1944, Michael Jeffery grew up in Los Angeles, California, and received a law degree from Yale University in 1969. He came to Alaska in 1977 as the first Alaska Legal Services attorney in Barrow. In 1982, he was appointed the first judge of the new state Superior Court in Barrow. As of 2012, he continues to work in that position. In addition to the interview with Michael Jeffery in the Judges of Alaska Project Jukebox by Karen Brewster, he also was interviewed on January 2 and 3, 2009... Read More

Judge Roy Madsen Judge Roy Madsen

Roy Madsen was born in 1923 in the village of Kanatak on Kodiak Island, Alaska. His father was a fur trader, and his mother was Sugpiaq-Alutiiq of the Sun’aq tribe. He attended Oregon State College, served in the Navy during World War II, and went to law school at Northwestern College of Law in Portland, Oregon. He was the district attorney in Clackamas County, Oregon, was a private attorney in Kodiak, Alaska, helped establish the Kodiak Area Native Association and the Kodiak Community... Read More

Justice Warren Matthews Justice Warren Matthews

Born in 1939, Warren Matthews grew up in Hollister, California, and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Stanford University in 1961 and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1964. He came to Alaska in 1964 and first worked as an attorney at the law firm of Burr, Boney, and Pease in Anchorage. In 1969, he formed the law firm of Matthews, Dunn and Bailey. In 1977, he was appointed to the Alaska Supreme Court and twice served as Chief Justice during his thirty-two years on the bench. Justice... Read More

Justice Buell Nesbett Justice Buell Nesbett

Buell Nesbett was born in New Mexico in 1910, worked as a radio operator in the Merchant Marines, earned his law degree from the University of San Francisco in 1940, won the Bronze Star while serving in the Navy in World War II, and came to Alaska in September 1945 to work as a private attorney. Nesbett was one of the first justices to serve on the Alaska Supreme Court when it was established in 1959. He was named Chief Justice of Alaska's highest court in 1959 by Gov. William A. Egan, and... Read More

Justice Jay Rabinowitz Justice Jay Rabinowitz

Jay Rabinowitz was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1927, and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He served in the US Army Air Corps during World War II, received a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University in 1949, and graduated from Harvard University Law School in 1952. Jay came to Alaska in 1957 as a law clerk for territorial judge, Vernon Forbes. Following service as assistant U.S. attorney for Alaska, and as the Alaska deputy attorney general, in 1960 he was appointed to the superior... Read More

Judge Thomas Stewart Judge Thomas Stewart

Tom Stewart was a member of Alaska’s Territorial House of Representatives, was secretary for the Alaska Constitutional Convention in 1955/56, and served as a state senator in the first Alaska Legislature following statehood. He served as Administrative Director of the Alaska Court System in the early 1960’s and on the Juneau Superior Court bench from 1966 until his retirement in 1981. After retirement, he remained active in the legal and judicial community, where he was often called upon to... Read More

Judge Gerald Van Hoomissen Judge Gerald Van Hoomissen

Gerald Van Hoomissen was born in Portland, Oregon and received his law degree from the University of Oregon Law School. In 1965, he became the Assistant US Attorney in Fairbanks, was district attorney in Fairbanks from 1968-1969, was a private attorney, and then in 1970 was appointed as judge of the Superior Court in Fairbanks. As a private pilot, he flew around much of rural Alaska to hold hearings and try cases in the villages, something which is no longer done. He retired from the bench... Read More