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First superior court clerk: 40th anniversary

By Kenneth D. Jensen

It's hard to believe that 40 years have passed since I graduated from law school and went to work for the Superior Court at Anchorage. I think the circumstances of that employment make a good story. Now, being a 'crumbly' (an Australian euphemism for 'old fart'), I take the liberty of telling it.

My wife Nancy has always been the most important person in my life. But the close second is E. L. (Bob) Bartlett, Senior Senator Emeritus for the State of Alaska. It was he who gave me a job on his staff so that I could attend law school at night. It was he who was my mentor, confirming my youthful belief that the singular polestar of ethical conduct is this: 'If it crosses your mind that it is wrong, don't do it.' More important to the subject: It was he who got me my first lawyering job as the first ever Superior Court law clerk in Alaska. Here is how it went:

Although I had grown up in Anchorage, my folks were not 'downtown' people. Mostly we lived out on Lake Otis Road -- then the boondocks. I wanted to be a lawyer but the closest I ever got to lawyers was skipping class at Anchorage High School to sit at the counter at the Oyster Loaf restaurant to listen to folks like John Manders, Bill Renfrew, Roger Cremo, Cliff Groh and George McLaughlin tell lawyer war stories at a booth nearby. The long and short of it is that the only person I ever met in the legal system was Magistrate Rosa Walsh who fined me $50 for throwing a firecracker in front of the old Providence Hospital on L Street.

So, when I got eligible to try to become a lawyer, I was at sea. My energies all had gone into getting there and I had not a clue about how to get a job. Nancy and I, by then, had four kids. We were dead-ass broke and I was scared to death.
I had been offered two jobs. One from Phil Holdsworth, who was a wonderful man and then Bill Egan's Commissioner of Natural Resources. He invited me to be his deputy commissioner. The other was from Rep. Ralph Rivers, a job that would have required us to live in Washington, D.C.

Neither job had much to do with lawyering.

One morning, shortly before I was to complete my last summer session course, Bob Bartlett asked me to come to his office. We sat down and he said: 'What are you going to do with your law degree?' I told him about the Holdsworth and Rivers offers.

He said this: 'Ken, have you been busting your ass for four years to be a goddamn bureaucrat?'

Near tears, I answered, 'No, I want to be a lawyer but I don't know how to get a job. I have to be a law clerk until I pass the bar and I don't know anybody to ask for a job.

He asked, 'Who hires law clerks?' I told him that lawyers and courts hire them.

So, here's what happened:
The Senior Senator from the State of Alaska telephoned Superior Court Judge Jim Fitzgerald and said, 'Fitz, I got a kid who has worked for me for four years and is graduating from law school. He's a good man and I think he is pretty bright. He needs a job. Do you guys hire law clerks?' After a long pause, the Senator said, 'OK, give Ed (Davis) and Ralph (Moody) my best." I was sent on my way with instructions to stand by for further word. About an hour later, I was buzzed into the Senator's office again where I was given a play-by-play of the response. It went like this:

Fitzgerald: 'I talked to Ralph and Ed. There are no Superior Court law clerks in Alaska but we think we can squeeze out some money to hire one. I think about the best we can do is $8,200 a year.'

Bartlett: 'Let me check. He's making more here but really wants to be a lawyer.'

So, that is how it happened, as best as I recall. And, from that humble beginning the Superior Courts of the State of Alaska are now all 'clerked up.' I guess I am the Superior Court law clerk emeritus.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have been spared the fate of becoming a career bureaucrat. I am even more grateful for having had the opportunity to serve in the court of Judge Jim Fitzgerald who reconfirmed my belief that the first and only rule of ethical conduct is, 'If it crosses your mind that it is wrong, don't do it'.
Thank you Senator. Thank you Judge.

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