Elise Patkotak: Because of FASD, justice takes time in Barrow courtroom

Elise Patkotak

In the interest of full disclosure, let me begin by saying that I've known Barrow Superior Court Judge Michael Jeffery for well over 30 years. I first met him when he arrived in Barrow as a legal services attorney. Since then, I have worked with him in a variety of capacities. There was a time I was the social worker and he was the attorney representing the parents of children in state custody. There was a long time when I was a guardian ad litem with the Barrow court overseeing cases involving children in state custody. I still occasionally work with the court as a court visitor, doing investigations and producing reports in cases involving requests for appointment of a guardian for an adult.

Both the high and low point of my time in Mike's court occurred many years ago when the state did not provide an assistant attorney general to represent the precursor of the Office of Children's Services, the Division of Family and Youth Services. The assistant district attorney, a position that represents the state primarily in criminal matters, was assigned to go to court with the social worker as needed. Needless to say, children's law was not their forte. The Indian Child Welfare Act was totally foreign territory to them.

I was in court in a custody dispute involving Inupiat children. A legal services attorney represented the parents. While that attorney was quoting from the commentary of senate debate over the tweaking of ICWA as it related to the intent of the law, the DA passed me a piece of paper on which were written the words, "What is ICWA?"

At the time, that was the low point in my court career. Now it's a high point because it is, in retrospect, pretty sadly funny.

So when I speak about the Barrow court, I speak from a position of long history and experience. I've heard all the nicknames given to the judge from "Minimum Mike" to "St. Michael" (sorry, Mike, don't know if you've heard that one before). Whether going into court in front of Judge Jeffery is considered a good or bad thing depends in great part on whether you are the defendant or prosecutor, or whether you are the client or the appointed attorney appearing telephonically from Fairbanks.

That is an important piece of context missing from the article that appeared in Sunday's paper about Judge Jeffery's attempt to make his court user-friendly to people who may have some limitations due to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Many times a hearing in his court involves only the judge, his clerk, and maybe the defendant actually present physically. Everyone else is on the phone.

Holding a hearing in which all attorneys and any auxiliary personnel are just disembodied voices floating on air in the courtroom can be confusing. So much of human interaction is gauged not just by words but also by body posture, attitude and expression. Attorneys representing clients in Bush courts are often in another city. While they may have the budget to fly to the hub community for an actual trial, all other preliminary hearings are usually held with them present telephonically. Sometimes the only person the client sees is the judge. So it falls on the judge to decide whether the person appearing before him seems to really understand what his attorney is saying.

Going to court in Barrow is a much longer process than just about anywhere else in the state. This can be extremely frustrating to lawyers on the phone who have 20 other cases on their desks and three other hearings to attend. But to the client whose attorney may be no more than a voice, Mike's willingness to take the time to make sure they understand what's happening is critical. Some of us on the phone may be rolling our eyes and looking at our watches, (sorry again, Mike), but if we take a moment to think about it, we know he's doing the right thing.

As frustrating as it can be to sit through a hearing that takes 45 minutes instead of five, Mike is right in saying it's the ethical thing to do given the statistics on FASD on the North Slope. I hope whoever replaces him understands this.

Elise Patkotak's latest book, "Coming Into the City," is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.

Elise Patkotak