Approximately 67 clerks serve Alaska’s State Court judges yearly. Most of these clerks are new graduates, but none attended law school in Alaska. I am one of these, currently clerking for my second year in the Superior Court at Fairbanks.
Alaska is a relatively young state, just 60 years old, and it is the only state without a law school. For the occasional clerk, this means that the first true exposure to both Alaska and Alaskan law occurs when the clerkship begins. It also means this exposure likely occurs in an astoundingly modern courthouse. The Fairbanks courthouse was built fewer than 20 years ago, and the court electronically records all hearings in lieu of employing court reporters. As a clerk, I can listen to past hearings by searching: case number, name, or date; I can listen to live hearings from my office. Although I am hearing disabled, I can easily follow in-court matters because headsets are available to boost the sound directly from the various microphones. Instead of paying a court reporter to transcribe a hearing, litigants pay minimal fees for CD recordings. As a benefit to Alaska’s pro se litigants, the status of public docket matters is easily available on the court’s website, which is full of self-help documents and guides.
While I could speculate that the number of pro se litigants in Alaska may have something to do with the independent nature of most Alaskans, as a clerk, I never feel alone. Clerking has given me the opportunity to work with most superior and district court judges in Fairbanks, and a visiting judge who tried a high-profile felony case in Fairbanks after a change of venue. There are also six superior law clerks in our courthouse and, unless one of our judges is recused from a case, we are free to discuss the issues we are working on with other clerks. This spirit of camaraderie often results in an opportunity to learn from another clerk’s experience and, to my delight, occasionally results in the opportunity to discuss evidentiary issues or past cases directly from a judge. This support system is particularly beneficial given the superior court hears all felonies, civil matters over $100,000, most divorce and custody cases, juvenile cases, and child in need of aid cases, including trials to terminate parental rights.
As a caution to the would-be prosecutors among you, because hearsay is so limited, and all felonies are subject to indictment by a grand jury, I have often remarked that Alaska is the one state where the district attorney can NOT indict a ham sandwich. As a caution to the rest of you, Alaska is not for everyone. It is dark, cold, expensive, and remote, with many communities only accessible by plane, boat, or sno-machine (that’s snowmobile to most of you). Here in Fairbanks, it will drop to 40 below at least once every winter, the roads are icy, and that plug hanging out of the front of my car? That is for the block, battery, and oil pan heaters I must keep plugged in to make sure my car starts. Several years ago, a law clerk was presumed killed by a bear when he never returned from a hike. I caution you because arriving unprepared puts not only your life but also the lives of your inevitable rescuers, at risk. However, those up for the challenge are welcome, perhaps even by a judge who brings in smoked salmon and moose stew for the staff.