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June 2007

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Nation's Northern–most Federal Court Brings Judiciary to the Frontier

Less than 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle is the northern-most court in the federal Judiciary—Fairbanks, Alaska. The federal court presence here began in the early 1900s with a single judge and a dogsled full of court records. Today, court records have gone electronic and federal judges often fly in to hear cases.

U.S. District Court Judge Ralph R. Beistline, part-time Magistrate Judge Terrance Hall, their chambers staff, three deputy clerks, a deputy bankruptcy clerk, and two probation office are the Fairbanks federal district court contingent. Hall, Beistline and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld are the latest in a long line of federal judges going back to Fairbanks’ beginnings, more than a century ago.

In 1903, the first district judge to sit in the Interior of Alaska, James Wickersham, followed a gold stampede to a collection of tents and a few log cabins in the Tanana Valley that would eventually become Fairbanks. At the time, his district covered some 300,000 square miles. Local history says he arrived by dogsled at the new settlement and built the first federal courthouse, financing construction with shop and saloon license fees. The structure burned down shortly thereafter. Wickersham was a lifelong booster for Alaska. After he resigned as a district judge in 1908 and was elected Alaska’s delegate to Congress, he helped pass the bill granting Alaska territorial status, and he introduced the first bill to give Alaska statehood.

These days, Fairbanks, Nome, Ketchikan, and Juneau are court divisions of Anchorage, 358 miles to the south of Fairbanks. Beistline is one of the district’s three active Article III judges, which also has four senior Article III judges, one full-time magistrate judge and five part-time magistrate judges.

“We all have spent decades in Alaska. Chief Judge John W. Sedwick grew up in Anchorage. In fact our two oldest senior judges, Judges James Von der Heydt and James M. Fitzgerald, were first appointed state court judges in 1959 when Alaska became a state,” relates Beistline. All of the active judges travel throughout the state for cases, with Beistline traveling between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld has his chambers in Fairbanks. He came to Alaska as a law clerk and liked practicing law in Fairbanks so much he never went back to a promised job in Boston. Through appointments as a U.S. magistrate judge, a U.S. district court judge, and finally as a court of appeals judge, Kleinfeld has called Fairbanks home. “When I was appointed to the Ninth Circuit, I could have had chambers anywhere in the circuit,” Kleinfeld says. “And I had calls from our U.S. Senators, and even President George H. W. Bush himself, asking where I wanted to sit. I wanted there to be an Alaskan seat as much as they did. Besides, this is where my wife and I have lived our adult lives, and this is my favorite place to live.”

For Beistline, going to Fairbanks is like going home, which is only natural. He’s a fourth generation Alaskan; his great grandmother’s family came to Alaska when gold was found; his father was a professor and dean of Alaska University’s College of Engineering and Mines in Fair-banks for over 30 years, and Beistline grew up there.

“I go to Fairbanks on an as-needed basis,” he says, “but generally I’m there at least once a month for several days, during which time I do hold court. If I have a trial, I could be there for several weeks at a time.”

Fairbanks’ caseload reflects its proximity to the North Slope and the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay; when the oil pipeline was under construction several years ago, the caseload grew too. “We have a bit of everything,” says Clerk of Court Ida Romack. “We went through an increase in environmental cases in the 1980s. Now there are more social security cases.” In addition to district court staff in the Fairbanks office, a deputy bankruptcy clerk is available to serve the public and accept filings. A bank- ruptcy judge travels to Fairbanks from Anchorage when necessary to conduct hearings and trials, although, says Bankruptcy Clerk of Court Wayne Wolfe, “as much as possible, matters are handled by teleconference from Anchorage to avoid undue cost to everyone.”

Naturalization ceremonies are performed throughout the state and in as remote a site as Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. In Fairbanks there are generally four such ceremonies a year. Last month, a Fairbanks naturalization ceremony drew an unexpected guest—Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. “The state bar invited the Chief Justice to its convention,” said Beistline. “We moved our naturalization ceremony to Friday when he’d be in town and he agreed to come over. We’ve never had a Chief Justice in Alaska, let alone Fairbanks.” Beistline says that Roberts welcomed, and then shook hands with, all 21 new citizens. “It was a spontaneous moment,” he says. “The Chief Justice turned the ceremony into a lifetime experience for everyone.”

As a state judge and now as a federal judge, Beistline is accustomed to jurors coming to court on snowmobile, and weather so unpredictable that, he says, “You have to be careful when you send jurors home for the weekend. You might not get them back.” Despite this, he claims the Fairbanks courthouse seldom closes. “Thirty degrees below zero is not bad weather in Fairbanks,” Beistline asserts.

Romack adds that although the roads and courthouses seldom close, sometimes getting jurors to court can be pretty interesting in a state where there are no roads to most places. “For Juneau and Ketchikan, it’s either ferry or plane, or plane and ferry and hope the weather cooperates,” she says. But Romack says she still gets the occasional call from the Administrative Office asking why they’re flying jurors in for court proceedings. “In Alaska,” she says, “getting on a plane is just so part of living here. It’s not like in the states where you get in a car and go to court.”

Romack tells of one man, a gold miner, who in the summer hitchhiked down from his gold claim outside of Fairbanks to Anchorage and in the winter came by dogsled to Fairbanks and then on by plane to Anchorage to serve on a grand jury. “He was so scruffy-looking that the bank would not cash his juror check unless I went to the bank and identified him,” Romack recalls. “He was on jury duty for 18 months and he made it for all 18 months.”

There are no certified interpreters in Alaska; they must be brought up from the lower 48. “We use the telephone interpreting line a lot,”says Romack, “and we usually go to the university or the state court for language-skilled interpreters.” Spanish language interpreters are in demand—many of the people who come to work in the canneries are Hispanic, and there is a sizable Asian population, too. But occasionally Russian interpreters are needed. Afterall, in Nome you can look out from the courthouse and see Russia across the water. When the ice is solid, some Alaska natives would walk over to visit relatives. “A few years ago,” Romack recalls, “we naturalized a woman in her 90’s whose mother had walked over to Russia and given birth while there.”

Not surprisingly, overseeing offenders on probation in the district also presents challenges. “Supervision is a bit difficult,” admits Toni Ostanik, one of two probation officers in the Fairbanks division. “A bit of our caseload is somewhat unreachable.” She explains that probation officers in Alaska—unlike their counterparts in the lower 48—can’t jump in a car and make home visits to check on offenders. “Most of our offenders are a plane ride,” says Ostanik, “and at least a few hours away, if the weather is good.” Probation officers often rely on village safety officers or law enforcement officers where an offender lives. For example, local officers may drug test offenders with kits sent out from the Fairbanks probation office. “It’s hard to supervise a case-load,” Ostanik admits, “when you can’t see offenders, face-to-face, on a regular basis.” Instead, offenders may be required to call in with a monthly report. “The cost is just too high for them to come to the office,” says Ostanik. “They don’t have the means. In fact, some of our offenders may never have been out of their villages in their whole lives.”

No matter how bad the weather or great the distance, the filing of civil, criminal, and bankruptcy cases in the district goes on. In January of last year, the District of Alaska implemented the Case Management/Electronic Case Files system. Because their old system could not be converted, every open case and all closed cases with activity had to be added manually and for a while clerks were doing double entry of cases. The transition went smoothly and the new system has been well received. “The public and the bar have been very receptive,” says Romack. “Chambers seem to like the new system too. It has really changed the way we do intake. Not very many people show up at the intake office now.”

The district makes technology work for them in other areas too. Romack depends on her Blackberry to keep her continually in touch, and the court is trying out teleworking. Some staff work from home a few days a week using laptops and Romack would like to expand the program. All of which goes to prove that the frontier spirit—in the sense of the leading edge—is alive and well in the District of Alaska. “Here in Alaska,” Beistline says with some pride, “we’re in the forefront of everything.”