Rural justice a focus for Fabe in 'State of the Judiciary'

Chief Justice concerned for the areas of Alaska where the long arm of the law does not reach

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe may be the Alaska Court System’s top official, but she devoted much of her “State of the Judiciary” speech to a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature Wednesday to tribal courts and rural parts of Alaska where the long arm of the law does not always reach.


Fabe referred repeatedly to previous State of the Judiciary speeches and the memoirs of past judges throughout her address, reinforcing her message that while Alaska has made progress toward bridging the “urban-rural divide” in providing judicial services to the remote communities that dot the state’s Interior and coastal regions, it has more work to do.

After quoting from then-Chief Justice Jay Rabinowitz’s 1992 State of the Judiciary speech on inequality in Alaska’s rural communities, Fabe said, “While I stand before you today, 20 years later, with gratitude for all that we’ve accomplished together in our rural communities, I stand also with a heavy heart for all that we’ve not yet accomplished, for suffering that is not abated and for realities of village life that still cry out for meaningful solutions over two decades after Chief Justice Rabinowitz’s poignant words.”

Some judges whose jurisdictions include rural villages have sought to include village elders and other members of remote communities in court proceedings, according to Fabe — asking for their advice in handing down sentences, for example.

“Quite simply, for courts to effectively serve the needs of rural residents, justice cannot be something delivered in a far-off court by strangers, but something in which local people — those most intimately affected — can be directly and meaningfully involved,” Fabe declared.

Fabe also spent some time during her address talking about courts that are actually outside the Alaska Court System: tribal courts, which coexist with state and federal courts.

“Tribal courts bring not only local knowledge, cultural sensitivity and expertise to the table, but also valuable resources, experience and a high level of local trust,” said Fabe. “They exist in at least half the villages of our state and stand ready, willing and able to take part in local justice delivery. And just as the three branches of state government must work closely together … state and tribal courts must work together closely to ensure a system of rural justice delivery that responds to the needs of every village that is timely, effective and fair.”

In a similar vein, Fabe also mentioned early intervention programs and therapeutic courts that have expanded throughout Alaska over the past decade. The Juneau Therapeutic Court program began in 2005.

“Reaching early solutions works better not only for the families and children involved, but for courts as well,” Fabe said. “Disputes resolved early are disputes that no longer fill our caseloads.”

Fabe also acknowledged recent changes on the Supreme Court, including longtime Justice Walter L. Carpeneti’s retirement last month.

Fabe praised Carpeneti’s “patience, compassion, intelligence and integrity,” to applause from legislators, while welcoming new Justices Joel Bolger and Peter Maassen to the court.

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, called Fabe’s address “interesting.” He said he was glad to hear Fabe voice support for programs like the therapeutic courts.

“Of course, Juneau has one now, and I’m glad they are going to continue it,” said Egan. “I think it’s a great, great program for Alaska and it saves us a lot of money.”

As to Carpeneti’s replacement by Bolger leaving Juneau without a justice among the five members on the Supreme Court for the first time since its 1959 formation — a piece of trivia not mentioned in the speech — Egan said, “I’m still concerned about that.”

“I would feel a lot happier if there was someone from Southeast, at least, on the bench,” Egan said. “Hopefully next time.”

Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, said of the address, “I thought it was a pretty good speech.”

“I was impressed with her attention to community-based solutions and her encouragement for members of the judiciary to look for solutions that involve community members, involve the tribal court system, looking for ways to encourage alternative sentencing,” said Muñoz, referring to one anecdote Fabe told about a young criminal offender in Sitka who was ordered to become a wood carver’s apprentice by a tribal court, placing him on course to become a more productive member of society.

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, remarked, “The tribal court in Sitka seems to be working good. It’s smoothed things out in the community quite a bit. I think it’s a good idea. I know it’s not followed universally around the state, but it works well for the community of Sitka. I expect it to continue.”

Asked what he thought of the speech, Stedman said, “It was all right.” He said he was glad to hear about the evolution and “diversification” of Alaska’s courts.

“I appreciated Chief Justice Fabe’s focus on rural justice,” said Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka. “I’m learning more about a lot of the examples she cited, but I’ve heard firsthand of the success of some of what she talked about — for instance, circle sentencing in Kake. … So it struck me as highly appropriate and very welcome.”

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at


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