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State's only Native superior court judge discusses career

SITKA, ALASKA
Ben Bakk is a senior at Mount Edgecumbe High School. He’s from Igiugig, a village near Bristol Bay. He’s sitting at a table in the back of the room during a break between presentations at the Color of Justice conference.

Bakk says he's not interested in law as a career, but that he's still benefiting from the conference.

“I think it’s important to know the people that do make these decisions, who are in the courts, and I think it’s just important to know what the judicial system is all about,” Bakk said. “I don’t necessarily want to be a part of law, but I do want to understand it.”

Across the room, junior Kim Jessup from Wasilla says she knows she wants to go to college and study a foreign language, but beyond that?

“I’m not so sure,” she said. “I came here with an open mind. I’m just exploring new opportunities. What I could do, what I could not do.”

Alaska Supreme Court Justice Dana Fabe says women make up about a quarter of state court judges nationwide, despite being half of the graduates from law school. And Alaska, she says, has one African American judge, one Asian American judge, and one Hispanic American judge.

“Really the bench should speak equality to those who come before it,” Fabe said. “And I think the public’s trust and confidence in the justice system is enhanced by seeing members of the judiciary, judges, who represent the communities they serve.”

In this state, many of those communities are comprised of Alaska Natives. In the history of the state, there’s only been one Alaska Native Superior Court judge. His name is Roy Madsen, and he served from 1975 until 1990. He’s 87 years old now, and on Tuesday, he spoke at Mount Edgecumbe High School, in an interview conducted by state Supreme Court Justice Walter Carpeneti.

The two of them are sitting on a stage in front of a picture from 1934. An 11-year-old Roy Madsen is in that photo, standing in front of the hide of an 11-foot-tall bear.

“In the bear camp, I was called the head man because my job was to scrape all of the flesh off the bear skulls, taking the eyes out and the brains and their gums,” Madsen said. “I’d spend all day with them, I’d scrape, scrape, scrape; digging and digging…”

From head man at the bear camp to the head man in the courtroom, Madsen holds the distinction of being the first, and so far only, Alaska Native appointed to the Superior Court bench in Alaska.
The Alutiiq elder told the assembled students that a career in law wasn’t in his plans.

“All I ever wanted to do when I was in high school was to go to the Naval Academy. I didn’t have any other plans, and fortunately, Judge Anthony Dimond, who was the delegate to Congress at the time, gave me an appointment to Annapolis. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to pass the physical. This was in 1941.”

He was physically fit in his youth, as the pictures flashing behind him on a huge screen seem to indicate. But he’s colorblind. So he ended up at Oregon State University, where he joined an Army ROTC program.

“Judge Dimond called me up and said, well, since you didn’t get into Annapolis, I’m willing to appoint you to West Point, but I can’t do it until next year. I said, I’m sorry, but I’m in ROTC in the Army and I don’t want any part of it, but thank you anyway.”

He ended up in the Navy – served in the Pacific during World War II – then came back to the states, took correspondence classes in law, and found himself so interested that he decided to attend law school in Oregon.

He was an Assistant District Attorney, then became Kodiak’s city attorney, and in 1975 wound up on the bench in Kodiak Superior Court. Not that he spent much time in one place. He worked many courtrooms in Southwest Alaska.

“The first time I stopped in Cold Bay I talked to the magistrate out there, and he said he hadn’t seen a judge for 7 years. That was kind of a shock. So I started traveling. One week out of the month I’d go to Unalaska or Dillingham or Naknek, or someplace like that.”

The main topic of the interview with Madsen was diversity in the judiciary. Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti asked him about that.

Carpeneti: “Did your background hurt you in any way, do you think?”

Madsen: “I don’t think it did, no. I didn’t find any discrimination. The court system can be a very intimidating place to find yourself in. Especially if English is your second language. You go into a place where the people have been raised speaking one language and then they have to learn another one, and then they’re in a strange surrounding, because the court is so formal. It can be intimidating. I think the fact I was part of them, and they accepted me as part of them, made it much easier.”

Students attending the interview had questions for Madsen, too, including one who asked whether he was rebellious as a teenager. Madsen said he had a very strict father, and an intense fear of public speaking when he was younger. Carpeneti, like a lawyer cross-examining a witness, followed up.

“The question was, were you rebellious or were you more of a follow-the-rules, and I did notice in this picture we had, that I think on your left arm there, it looks like a tattoo,” Carpeneti said. “And I wanted to ask you: Is that a tattoo from the Navy days or is that a tattoo to show that you’re kind of a cool person?”

Turns out, it’s a tattoo from his Navy days, although it’s hard to argue against the other option.

© Copyright 1970, Raven Radio Foundation Inc.

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