Juneau District Court Judge Kirsten Swanson has a rock on her desk.
It’s a small stone, smooth and just the right size to fit in the palm of your hand. On it is engraved a measurement: 5,280 feet, the number of feet in a mile.
“It’s my milestone,” Swanson said Friday, smiling.
This week, Swanson will finish her first month on the job. In the first week of December, she replaced Keith Levy on the district court bench.
“It’s been even better than I was expecting,” Swanson said, adding that it’s a job she’s wanted for a long time.
Before being appointed to the bench by Gov. Bill Walker last year, Swanson had worked for 13 years as a self-employed defense attorney. From an office on Harris Street, she defended clients in district, superior and federal court.
She worked in the natural resources section of the Alaska Attorney General’s office and as a public defender before that.
Between 1996 and 1999, she served in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, serving as a trial defense lawyer for accused soldiers.
When her tour of duty ended, she returned to Juneau, a place she had interned as a law student.
Swanson grew up in Oregon; she picked berries and fruit in summer to make extra money as a teenager. She worked in a department store on weekends and summers while in high school, then in the Clackmas County Sheriff’s office while she attended the University of Oregon.
After she graduated, she worked in Clackmas County Jail and Prison until she left for law school at Gonzaga in 1992.
While she’s been on the defense side of the courtroom more often than not, Swanson said she’s fascinated by district court. She applied for a Juneau vacancy in 2010 and a Bethel district court vacancy in 2013, but she didn’t get either. The third time was the charm in 2016.
“To me, district court is the crossroads,” she explained. “Anybody could end up in district court.”
District court cases range from serious criminal matters to common or obscure civil incidents.
In the past month, Swanson said she’s had to brush up on her civil law and has encountered a learning curve in some unexpected ways. More than once, she’s tried walking out of the courtroom with case files, only for a clerk to jump up and ask for them back. Those were her responsibility as an attorney, but not anymore.
“In some ways, it’s about letting go of control,” she said.
She’s also had to make some changes in her personal life. She can’t hang out with her fellow attorneys as she once did.
“Luckily, I have a lot of friends who are not attorneys,” she said.
Each time she enters the courtroom and the call “all rise” goes out, she’s reminded of her time in the JAG Corps and how enlisted men would stand when an officer entered the room.
It’s a milestone that’s come back around, but this time, she’s being called “your honor” instead of “Captain.”
Does she think she’ll be around a while?
“Boy, I hope so,” she said.