PALMER -- Beverly Cutler, the first woman named to the state Superior Court in Alaska, retires in September after spending the last 32 years as a judge, 27 of them in Palmer.
Since 1982 Cutler has presided over divorce cases and DUIs, bureaucratic tussles and murders -- most recently, the conviction of Frank Adams for beating his girlfriend to death then fleeing police with her body in his car.
She started out as the only judge in a one-courtroom courthouse with criminal files stored on a second floor accessible only by an outside metal staircase, freezing in winter and apt to snag clerks' heels in summer. Now she's one of four Superior Court judges serving in a building that just went through a nearly $6 million renovation. She's also the only Superior Court judge in Palmer who lives in the Valley.
Cutler earned a reputation as a judge whose tenure on the bench gave her firsthand knowledge of Alaska case law but also personal experience with defendants. Someone who faced her as a juvenile offender might later come before her in a divorce or criminal proceeding or have their children end up in her courtroom.
She also has a distinguished legal pedigree. Her father, attorney Lloyd Cutler, served as White House counsel during the administrations of President Jimmy Carter and President Bill Clinton.
Cutler turns 60 this fall. She raised four children and hopes to create a new program for children to visit their mothers in jail. She also hopes to write a book based on hundreds of letters that passed between her father and mother during the 1940s after he left a big New York City law firm to enlist in the U.S. Army during World War II.
Cutler sat down recently for an interview at a Palmer coffee house before starting hearings for the day.
Q. You were the first woman named to the Superior Court in Alaska. Did you feel pressure to represent your gender?
A. Definitely. When I was appointed to the District Court in Anchorage, I actually replaced a woman who was much older ... I definitely felt pressure to show that a young woman could do the job. I feel good about the fact that it seems that we have followed with an incredible number of young woman judges.
Q. Do you still run into gender bias?
A. I'd say yes and no. I feel I've had as many advantages extended to me as there have been disadvantages. You might be chosen to lead a committee because there aren't any women leading other committees ... (At) law schools and colleges, it's actually more of an advantage today. I think they're scrambling to find boys with academic records as good as the girls' ... I don't know there's a disadvantage, but with your male cohorts and some of your male lawyers you really have to sort of ace the art of being the leader without being a dominant queen bee ... You just can't be too touchy feely, but you can't be too scattered. Women tend to multi-task and focus on several fronts at once or we wouldn't have been able to survive, but as a leader you really can't do that.
Q. Who are some of your mentors?
A. Boy. In the state I'd say (state Supreme Court justices) Dana Fabe and Walter Carpeneti, (former Supreme Court justice) Alex Bryner and (former Anchorage Superior Court Judge) Elaine Andrews ... My seventh-grade math teacher and my eleventh-grade English teacher. They're still in my psyche. I was blessed to have a parent who really clearly went to work other than just to make money or be important. He seemed to enjoy having a passion about what he was engaged in.
Q. Did your father push you toward a career in law, or were you more influenced by his example?
A. Much more example. I think he was tickled. My brother and sister also went into law.
Q. Which cases stick in your mind when you look back over your career?
A. (Cutler described a case early in her career over population counts involving remote-site workers, and another case involving a bid to declare invalid a school board election.)
Q. I think the average person would have assumed you'd name big, high profile cases -- murders ...
A. I think you never forget any of the murder cases. The one that sticks most in my mind ... They came to my house to get a search warrant on a beautiful Saturday morning. The victim (killed in May of 1985) was a black man I had only vaguely known (43-year-old Julius Marshall, a Wasilla mechanic) ... To be brought an application for a search warrant for a victim you knew, plus basically this man had been murdered because the white 23-year-old who murdered him (Michael Dunkin) had called him to tow his truck, which was stuck in the flats down by Jim Creek, and a couple people also called to get towed out of the flats. (Marshall) had stopped and pulled somebody else out first. (Dunkin) told his friends, he was just going to 'shoot the spook' anyway. They were worried about the bill. He went over to the gas station and shot the guy. Really overwhelming racism. That somebody could be so angry that somebody else got waited on first...
Q. John Pearl Smith II is another name you probably remember. He escaped his mother's custody in the Butte while free on your order letting him attend his late father's memorial service in 2005. You took heat for that decision. How do you deal with that kind of public criticism?
A. You just have to be very strong. You can't be a spokesperson, you can't comment on a case, you hope that people like reporters or victims would consult the actual record to see what really was said and done as opposed to the knee-jerk reaction. It's like taking a line out of context any time...You're always thankful in cases like that when the person is apprehended and he's not done any serious harm to anyone. It probably does also appropriately make you a little more conservative the next time around. If we do not learn from experience, what do we learn from?
Find Zaz Hollander online at adn.com/contact/zhollander.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER