Crime & Courts

Alaska’s chief U.S. District Court judge is retiring at the end of the year

Judge Timothy Burgess, the most experienced federal judge in Alaska, will retire at the end of the year.

“It actually has been just a great job. And I just feel really honored and blessed to have had the opportunity to do it,” he said Tuesday, thanking his colleagues and court staff.

Burgess was appointed by President George W. Bush and took office in January 2006. He has been chief judge of the three-member U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska since 2015. His replacement will be named by President Joe Biden and must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Candidates are typically recommended to the president by the state’s congressional delegation. Unlike state judicial selections, there is no deadline for presidential or congressional action on federal judgeships.

Burgess turned 65, the minimum retirement age for federal judges, on Aug. 11, and he said he’s retiring for family reasons, including the birth of his first grandchild and the pending retirement of his spouse, Joanne Grace.

“We’ve been married for 40 years, and it was kind of a good thing for us to do together,” he said.

After the end of the year, Burgess will remain a “senior judge,” able to resolve his cases already in progress. He also may take cases if the court’s active judges are unavailable.

U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan thanked Burgess for his service.

“These will be big shoes to fill — but this now begins the process for filling this important vacancy,” Murkowski said.

Among Burgess’ most important decisions was a 2014 ruling that struck down Alaska’s ban on same-sex marriage. Voters had approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages, but Burgess ruled it unconstitutional one year before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a similar case.

In 2018, Burgess overturned an Arizona death penalty conviction after being assigned the case because Arizona judges were unavailable. His decision, which came amid evidence of innocence, was upheld by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals but has since been sent to the Supreme Court.

Asked about his most memorable cases, he said, “I don’t want to sound corny, but to the litigants that are involved in a case, that’s the most important case in the world. And so, you know, I always try to remember that when I’m dealing with a case.”

Burgess came to Alaska in 1976 on a basketball scholarship to the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

State Rep. Bart LeBon, R-Fairbanks, also played on the university’s basketball team at about that time and remembers Burgess as a “very good basketball player who also excelled in his academic responsibilities. No surprise to me that he ascended to the very top of his career field.”

Burgess graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1978 and earned a master’s degree in business administration four years later. He was an aide to then-Sen. Frank Murkowski and earned a law degree in 1987 from Northeastern University.

As a law student, he worked for Charlie Cole, who later became Alaska’s attorney general under then-Gov. Wally Hickel. After working in private practice, he joined the U.S. Department of Justice in Anchorage.

He rose through the ranks, becoming an assistant U.S. attorney and then U.S. attorney for the District of Alaska in 2001. Four years later, the same president who picked him for that job selected him for the District Court judgeship, and he was sworn in six months later.

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