After more than three decades as Barrow's one and only Superior Court judge, Michael Jeffery is calling it quits. Not that he had a choice.
His last day as judge in the community 320 miles above the Arctic Circle is Dec. 28. Under state law, he is required to retire at age 70.
Jeffery made Barrow his home after a brief visit around Christmas 1976. A California native who had spent the previous five and a half years living in India -- much of that time spent under the tutelage of a guru -- he'd never experienced anything like the dark, cold climate. He was considering a job with Alaska Legal Services Corp.
"I had no idea where Barrow was but quickly found out," he said sitting in the grand jury room of the community's courthouse in mid-December. It was pitch black outside, around 10 degrees below zero, shortly after 9 in the morning. "I wasn't saying yes, but I wasn't saying no, either."
He was immediately fascinated. He had a fondness for cross-cultural and remote places. He spent his first night in the North Slope Borough in the village of Nuiqsut. The legal services folks had business in the rural community, as they often did. It gave Jeffery a glimpse of village life.
Despite that positive experience, Jeffery said he was concerned that state officials were simply sticking a pin on a map, or choosing the location for a rural court at random. However, he found Barrow residents truly desired legal help that was nearer than Fairbanks, he said. At that time, judges in the Interior hub would travel to Barrow once a month or so to handle cases.
Jeffery spent that Christmas back in Los Angeles with his family, the first time he had done so in several years.
"I called them after Christmas and said I'd take the job," he said with a laugh. He arrived at Barrow's airport with a budget in his head and little else.
A member of the community
Jeffery worked as a legal services attorney from 1977 until his appointment as Superior Court judge in 1982. He was Barrow's first, and resources remained subpar when he took the position. Facilities and personnel have since expanded. When Jeffery started, judges in the state's second judicial district did not have law clerks to help with research, as is now common in courtrooms statewide.
He has left his mark in Barrow largely due to his courtroom procedures. But he said he found it natural to make himself a recognizable face in town -- without his black robe.
Elise Patkotak, who left Barrow in 2000 after 28 years, interacted with Jeffery though her social work and as a court visitor, a neutral appointee. She said Jeffery took it upon himself to participate in the community as much as possible.
He was a member of a local dance group, serving as its drummer, though he admits that he doesn't participate as much anymore. He sang tenor in his church choir -- that's where he met his wife, who was an alto.
"My experience has been that people in Barrow and the North Slope appreciate it when anyone attempts to be part of the community, learn the culture and not just stand apart from them," Patkotak said. "Certainly, he made every attempt to understand their culture and values, then bring some of that into the courtroom."
Jeffery said he has expended immeasurable energy and spent countless work hours addressing fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. FASD awareness grew nationwide shortly after Jeffery arrived in Barrow.
Locals were not aware of the disorder, however. It wasn't until 1990, during a sexual assault case, that Jeffery became convinced special accommodations were necessary for defendants who experience FASD.
People with the disorder are hard to spot by physical characteristics. Since Jeffery could not single out defendants for special treatment, his court proceedings tended to move more slowly than the norm.
And Jeffery championed a change to state law in 2012 that enabled judges to allow lower sentences for people with fetal alcohol syndrome or related disorders.
He created plain-language court forms for defendants and favored reintroduction into society over lengthy jail sentences, an approach that has earned him the nickname "Minimum Mike" among some locals.
Jeffery said he also felt obligated to oversee all child welfare and delinquency cases, which are sometimes handed off by judges due to time constraints. He understood that the man in the black robes is intimidating to kids, a jarring introduction to the legal system.
"First of all, those cases are Superior Court cases. Second, I care," he said. "It's just something I have a heart for. Even when I was working for legal services, I saw Native families and the kids. It's been a big commitment of time, but it's not something I felt comfortable handing over to someone else, if I could help it."
Retirement is an unknown to Jeffery. He feels he has the energy and legal skills to continue working for the community.
He hopes to continue his efforts at tackling FASD issues. As for what that will look like, he's unsure.
"As I go into retirement, I think I'll be spending more time on those issues," Jeffery said. "There are due process issues ... Improvements still need to be made, but I'm not sure what that means for me. We'll find out together. Stay tuned."
In November, then-Gov. Sean Parnell chose Angela Greene to replace Jeffery. Greene, of Nome, will give up her job as the supervising public defender of the Alaska Public Defender Agency there and in Kotzebue to make a new home farther north.
She will be sworn in Dec. 30, two days after Jeffery's retirement, said Mara Rabinowitz, communications counsel for the Alaska Court System.
North Slope Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower, a former state magistrate judge, said she has known Greene for about 30 years.
"I'm sure the (Alaska Judicial Council) did appropriate outreach to the community on the candidates," she said. "I'm confident in the decision."
Brower said Barrow residents have been "very comfortable" with Jeffery and the local court system. She witnessed the Fairbanks judges who would intermittently travel to town before Jeffery stuck with it for the long term.
"You have to live in the community to know how it works," Brower said. "We're going to miss him very much."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing