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Territorial lawyers remember McCarthy, early Juneau, New Jersey, et al

By Margaret R. Russell

The scheduling of this year's Territorial Lawyers dinner to coincide with the Alaska Bar Convention prompted Judge Tom Stewart of Juneau, one of the founders of Alaska's judicial system, to attend the fifth annual Territorial Lawyers dinner May 16 at the Mahogany House B & B in Anchorage. Also attending were Senior Judges James Fitzgerald and James von der Heydt, both of whom reside in Anchorage.

The dinner brought together many of the lawyers and judges who practiced law in the Territory of Alaska, along with their spouses and guests, to share memories of the early years and catch up on news about themselves and mutual friends, present or not. Many of those present attend the dinner every year, relishing the opportunity to see old friends and reminisce about the fun and the challenges of practicing law in the territorial court and during the early years of Alaska's own judicial system.

Both of the senior U.S. District Court judges held a variety of legal positions in Alaska's Territorial and state governments. Senior Judge von der Heydt began his career in Nome where he served several years as a U.S. Marshall, and a year as a U.S. Court Commissioner. After serving two years as U.S. Attorney for Alaska, he opened a private practice in Nome and was elected to Alaska's first House of Representatives in 1957. In 1959, he was appointed Alaska's first State Superior Court judge in Juneau. He was appointed to the federal bench in 1966.

Senior Judge Fitzgerald was an Assistant United States Attorney from 1952-1956, followed by a term as Anchorage City Attorney between 1956 and 1959. In 1959, he acted as legal counsel to the governor and State Commissioner of Public Safety, and was then appointed to the Superior Court bench. He was an Alaska Supreme Court Justice from 1972 until he was appointed Judge of the United States District Court in Anchorage in 1975.

Judge Tom Stewart's Alaska roots probably go deeper than those of any of the other longtime Alaskans in the room. He almost certainly was the only person who lives to this day in the same house he grew up in, where he has resided for most of the past 84 years.

Stewart's house was built by his father D. B. Stewart, who brought his family to Juneau in the early 1900s. The elder Stewart, who was always known as 'D. B.,' worked as an engineer for the Alaska Juneau Mining Company. He eventually became the commissioner of mines, first for the territory and the U.S. Government, and eventually for the new state. It was D. B. who convinced the first U.S. Army general assigned to Alaska in 1940 that the bases at Fort Richardson and Fort Wainwright should be heated with Alaska's abundant coal rather than oil, which had to be shipped many slow miles from Outside.

After growing up in Juneau, Stewart obtained a degree from the University of Washington and then joined the army. His first assignment was to help liberate Kiska Island in the Aleutians from the Japanese who, as it turned out, had pulled out two weeks before the Americans arrived. Stewart spent the final weeks of the war fighting in Italy, where the battles were fierce and the casualties high.

Stewart saw by this time that America's primary adversary in the future would be Russia and he wanted an education that would prepare him for that eventuality. He obtained a masters in international studies from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in Russian studies. He then entered Yale Law School from which he graduated in 1950.

When Stewart sought work in the state department addressing the Russian problem, however, his plan was foiled by a lack of funding for the work he was prepared to do. Senator Joe McCarthy had already decided how to address the Russian threat and he was doing it his own way.

Stewart returned to Juneau. He passed the Alaska Bar in 1951 while he clerked for U.S. District Court Judge George W. Folta, Sr. After three-years as an assistant U.S. attorney, Stewart served a term as representative in the 1955 territorial legislature, which authorized Alaska's constitutional convention. The legislature appointed Stewart Executive Director of the Statehood Committee. After the convention was convened in 1955, Steward was elected Secretary to the convention, and he subsequently assisted the Statehood Committee organize the vote on the constitution.

Bob Ely reminded Stewart of their joint trip during this period to New Jersey, which had just revamped its entire state government, including drafting a new constitution. Judge Dimond had asked Ely, an Alaska district attorney at the time, to assist Stewart in managing the drafting of the constitution. The leaders of that process in New Jersey agreed to share their experience with the Alaskans. As a result, the articles of Alaska's constitution that govern organization of the executive branch and court administration are patterned after New Jersey's constitution.

After the constitution was approved in 1956, Stewart opened a private law practice in Juneau and was elected to a two-year term in the first state senate. In 1960, Judges Nesbett and Dimond appointed Stewart Alaska's first state court administrator. As such, he was largely responsible for organizing the Alaska Court System. The job required him to move to Anchorage for six years.

At the end of his tenure as court administrator, Stewart returned to Juneau where he served as superior court judge for fifteen years. He continues to preside over settlement conferences and maintains an office in the state court building in Juneau. During recent years he has been appointed by Governor Knowles to preside over the summit meeting on the subsistence dispute and more recently to sit on the governor's committee on tolerance. Judge Stewart reportedly has been dubbed by his admirers Thomas 'Jefferson' Stewart because of his enormous contributions to the establishment of Alaska's state government.

Also attending the dinner from out of town were former Alaskan Allan McGrath, who now lives in his original home state of New York; Jamie Fischer from Kenai; Fairbanks lawyers Charlie Cole and Barry Jackson; and Chuck Cloudy of Ketchikan.

McGrath and former New Yorker Roger Cremo recalled upon meeting that the last time they saw each other many years ago they were representing opposing parties in a civil case. They dined out together during the trial, settling the case over dinner, and recalled their waitress referring to them as 'that New York bunch.' McGrath mentioned that he now lives across the street from Lincoln Center.

Barry Jackson said he came to Alaska in 1957, while he still was studying law at Stanford, to see if there might be an opportunity here for a young lawyer. He managed to get a job clerking with Territorial Judge George Forbes. When Jackson passed the bar in 1959, there were about 20 lawyers in Fairbanks and about 100 lawyers in Anchorage.
Jackson shared stories about the early days in the Fairbanks courts with Robert Wagstaff, who attended the dinner as a guest. Wagstaff worked as an assistant district attorney in Fairbanks for his first two years out of law school. He and Jackson both had stories about attorneys pressed into service in criminal matters who found themselves unable to recognize which of the men in the courtroom was their client. One of these attorneys had to ask Wagstaff, the prosecutor, to point out the client; the other hapless lawyer had to ask the judge.

Jackson also recalled bringing an action against the state to require that compensation be paid to lawyers who were appointed by the court to represent criminal clients. He lost. He tried making a similar argument to obtain fees for representing the Athabascan tribes from the Nelchina area before Congress during passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. He lost again. This time the financial impact of losing was much greater.

Jackson did eventually act as counsel to the Native corporation formed by his tribal clients, however. Jackson worked with his client to choose a memorable name that suggested the corporation was prepared to do business worldwide, and especially with Japan. He was pleased with the name chosen by the Native leaders: Doyon. The word means 'big' in Tlingit, which is close to the Athabascan language. Jackson suggested adding 'Limited' to convey an international status. He also had learned during his stay in Japan after his World War II military service that 'n' is the only consonant that can be found at the end of a word in the Japanese language.

Virgil Vohaska compared notes with Jackson about practicing law in Nome during the early days of statehood. Fairbanks and Nome had cultural similarities that allowed Fairbanks lawyers to fit into a Nome courtroom. You could spot an Anchorage lawyer every time, Vohaska said.

Vohaska described Nome as a delightful place to live during those years even though much of the social life took place in bars. Several young women were employed as teachers in the small Catholic school, however, and every man in town had his eye on them. One of Vohaska's favorite day-off activities was taking friends on a drive to Council, which was far enough inland for temperatures to reach 80 degrees and for trees to grow. The draw of Council must have been strong: getting there required crossing 22 streams, actually 21 streams and the Nuikluk River. He learned from painful experience that you only crossed the river when you could see the tops of both rocks at the common fording spot.

Roger Cremo admits to delighting in well-embellished stories. His stories on this occasion focused on the late George Grigsby, who was, in Cremo's eyes, the smartest lawyer who has ever practiced in the state of Alaska. He was also one of the most persistent, at times outrageously so.

Grigsby's father was appointed United States Attorney in Nome during territorial days. When the senior Grigsby was sent back East for a period of some months on another assignment, he suggested to his son George, who had just graduated from law school, that he come to Nome to replace his father in his absence. George was happy to do so.
The U.S. Attorney's office, however, did not accede to this plan and appointed an interim U.S. Attorney to replace the senior Grigsby. The interim appointee proceeded to conduct his grand jury proceedings in the courtroom and handed in his true bills to the judge. Undaunted, Grigsby called his own grand jury in a room behind the Board of Trade bar. Grigsby then appeared in court and handed the judge his true bills as well. The court accepted true bills from both.
Grigsby's persistence did not pay off as well when he attempted to serve as Alaska's delegate to the United States Congress. Grigsby ran for delegate and apparently lost, but contended he actually had won. Thus, when the elected delegate headed for Congress so did Grigsby. When Alaska's delegate was asked to rise during the opening session of Congress, the duly elected delegate stood up. So did Grigsby. The Congress assigned the question of which of the two men was the legitimate Alaska delegate to a committee. The committee took almost the entire session to reach a determination. Grigsby spent most of that time playing poker with a colorful, well-known Senator. Near the end of the session, the committee reported to the House members that it had determined to seat the person actually elected to the office and not Grigsby. The committee also announced, however, that the delegate's per diem already had been paid out to Grigsby.

Cremo understands that Grigsby argued 12 cases on behalf of criminal defendants before the United States Supreme Court and won them all. On one occasion, Cremo told Grigsby, whom he always called 'Mr. Grigsby,' that he considered him the smartest lawyer in the state. In response, Grigsby pointed to a photograph on the wall nearby and said, 'No, there is the smartest lawyer in the state.' The picture was of a group of some 30 lawyers then practicing in Nome. Grigsby singled out the face of one David Finke and told Cremo that Finke had been sought out by Al Capone to defend him at trial in the income tax evasion case that finally put Capone behind bars. Capone had lost faith in the some twenty lawyers he had hired before trial and picked instead a lawyer from Nome, Alaska to defend him in one of the most famous criminal trials of the period.

The stories recounted by Cremo, Jackson, Vohaska and Judge Stewart are just a sampling from the treasure trove of memories held by Alaska's longest-practicing lawyers and judges and often shared at the Territorial Lawyers Dinner. The Bar Historians Committee hopes to preserve at least some of these fascinating reminiscences by continuing the oral history project begun several years ago by local lawyer Pam Cravez. Anyone who would like to participate in the project or to suggest that an oral history be taken of a particular subject should call Tim Lynch 276-3222.

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