Retired Supreme Court judge back behind the Juneau bench

Posted: Monday, November 22, 2010

"This sounds like a triumph of hope over experience," the judge said, looking at a defendant who hadn't quite been keeping up with his appointed probation rules. "I think you have failed miserably in following what was asked of you, but the DA and your attorney have already reached an agreement. So I am going to ask that these remarks be transcribed so the next judge can read them. Do you understand?"

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Klas Stolpe /Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe /Juneau Empire

The judge was retired Alaska Supreme Court Justice Warren Matthews, who served as a pro tem, or temporary, judge in Juneau Superior Court last week.

"That was a paraphrase of a quote from Winston Churchill I believe," Matthews said in the Juneau Judges chambers after. "He was discussing someone's fifth marriage, I believe, as a triumph of hope over experience."

Of the 21 justices who have served on the Alaska Supreme Court, Matthews' 32 years is the second longest term, just a month or two short of Jay Rabinowitz' record.

As a high school teen in Hollister, Calif., Matthews remembered a classroom visit on career day in 1957 from an attorney.

"I had a vision of the lawyer as an independent person," Matthews said. "He had this independent air about him. That was for me, I didn't want to work for anybody."

Matthews next attended Stanford University, where he was a pre-law major and graduated in 1961.

"It was a quiet campus when I went there," Matthews said. "I do remember some students talking about going south to join the freedom rides in the civil rights movement, but it was sort of the complacent 50s."

Matthews graduated from Harvard Law School in 1964 and began private practice in Anchorage in 1965 with Burr, Boney & Pease as a young associate lawyer.

"When I started there wasn't a public defender's office," Matthews said. "And it wasn't very satisfactory. Judges would typically appoint younger associates in the firms to give defense for those who had committed a crime. As a young lawyer, it was a good experience for me. I had immediate criminal work, some of which was over my head but we all managed. I liked the idea of coming to Alaska and working for a small firm."

After four years Matthews and another colleague at the firm formed Matthews, Dunn and Bailey.

Matthews was appointed in May 1977 by then-Gov. Jay Hammond to serve on the Supreme Court. Other requirements for appointment include being a practicing lawyer for eight years and approval by the Alaska Judicial Council.

"It was great," Matthews said. "I was honored. It was a career change of course. A career I very much enjoyed."

Matthews served as Chief Justice on the Supreme Court twice: from October 1987 until September 1990 and again from July 1997 until June 2000. He was also chairman of the Alaska Judicial Council on those dates. Additionally, he was a board member and second vice president of the Conference of Chief Justices. Matthews also served as a member of the Board of Governors of the Alaska Bar Association, the Alaska Bar Ethics and Unauthorized Practices Committee, and the Supreme Court Criminal Rules Revision Committee.

"Every case that was in front of the Supreme Court for 32 years," said Matthews, when asked what cases as a Justice held most interest to him. "The thought is that all cases are important to the parties and the justices should give maximum effort in every one. The core function is that the court works independently from the executive branch and the legislative branch of the government and I have never had anything but a spirit of good faith cooperation among the branches."

The Alaska Constitution requires Supreme Court justices to retire at age 70, but after retirement, they can serve by special assignment. Matthews stepped down April 5, 2009. Now as a pro tem judge, he has been trying cases from Anchorage to Unalaska. The current chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court assigns cases and there is a periodic polling of members of the bar to make sure the pro tem judges are competently doing the job.

"I am not working full time so I have time to enjoy myself, too," Matthews said. "But I enjoy being active and being involved in the law. The way I used to do it, though, it just wouldn't be possible to practice law the way I used too."

When not in court Matthews said he reads, cross-country skis, and fishes a lot.

"In 2009 I calculated I spent two full summer months trout fishing in various places," Matthews grinned. "I have taken up golf, too, don't know if that is a mistake or not. But I do need to work, too."

Married since 1963, Matthews and wife Donna have two adult daughters, the older is a psychiatric social worker and the younger a lawyer in private practice.

"We talked politics, general government, or news issues of the day but never law around the dinner table," Matthews laughed. "And I am quite sure I did not scare any potential boyfriends away."

Matthews said he believes law is a system of imposing a private order. And, as he sat in chambers after another day behind the Juneau bench, he reflected on that duty.

"Being a Supreme Court justice is intellectually challenging," Matthews said. "In the trial courts it is also intellectual and then, of course, you have a lot of personal contact. The newness of it is interesting to me. They say when you reach retirement you should take up something new to keep your outlook fresh. Well, there have been a lot of new things this week and I hope I have been doing them competently. The courts are overburdened and they need help. My coming here has been helpful to the system and the courts and fulfilling to some degree for me."

Matthew paused and looked out the Juneau courthouse onto the surrounding city.

"I am impressed with the quality of the Juneau bar," he said. "At least with the experience I have had with them this week, they seem to be prepared, well qualified and professional towards one another. Now my head is spinning from a week of doing the 'people's court' again, I can only hope it turned out well."

• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at klas.stolpe@

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