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The Alaska lawyer who took 22 cases to protect kids from domestic violence -- for free

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: October 24, 2016
  • Published October 24, 2016

Anchorage attorney Jon Katcher (Charles Wohlforth / Alaska Dispatch News)

This is a story of bad fathers and good fathers.

In the late 1990s, a father beat up his toddler's mother and took the child away to a troubled home in a rural community. The mother, who had intellectual deficits, was left behind in the city with no money.

Anchorage attorney Jon Katcher took her case without compensation and brought it to trial, winning full custody for the mother. Two decades later, the child is a freshman at a Big Ten university.

"I've had a lot of success as a lawyer," Katcher said. "This case is the one that I will never forget. It is the one I feel I made the most difference in the life of a human being."

Over two decades, Katcher has continuously represented domestic violence victims without compensation, getting kids away from abusive dads. Earlier this month he received an award from Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth, who cited 22 cases he has worked on since 2000.

The staff at the Alaska agencies who seek out free (or pro bono) attorneys for battered women told me Katcher is exceptional. When they call, he says yes, even to complex cases other attorneys turn down.

Katcher seemed surprised and a little annoyed when I asked how much it costs him to do the free work. He said he has never thought about that.

Civil litigation is Katcher's specialty, the kind you can't afford unless you have a major dispute about something like an apartment building or tractor-trailer crash. But he prefers working for underdogs. He represents women, unsafe in their own homes, fighting for their kids.

Often, advocates say, the fear of sharing custody with a batterer will keep women in dangerous relationships. They may accept beatings if that's what it takes to protect the kids.

Fighting these cases in court is emotionally draining. But if Katcher can prove a pattern of violence, the law generally gives the victim full custody.

In presenting him with the state's pro bono award, Lindemuth said that Alaska has the highest rate of women being killed by men in the country. According to a 2015 survey by the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, 40 percent of Alaska women have at some point in their lives been victims of violence by an intimate partner.

Katcher sees his work as a long-term solution that he can work on one family at a time. Children who don't grow up in violent homes are less likely to become violent as adults.

Katcher himself had an amazing father.

Working as a printer in the bankruptcy court in Detroit, Archie Katcher became interested in the words going by on his presses. Although he didn't have a college diploma, he went to law school at night, got his law degree and passed the Michigan bar exam. Eventually, he became a court clerk.

In 1946, a court referee suddenly left — essentially the bankruptcy judge. Archie took the position temporarily and held it for 10 years.

But Katcher's father died when he was only 20, still finding his own direction as a student. Partly retired himself now, he speaks reverently of his dad, a leader in his profession and synagogue and provider of a stable home in his lifelong marriage.

"He had a core ethics about him that was integrity and public service," Katcher said. "You can't really escape your past, even if you move 3,000 miles away."

Katcher got together with his wife, Kate Michaels, in college. He said they probably attended the same bar mitzvahs as children. They came to Alaska after he got his law degree in 1981. Michaels taught at Denali Elementary School until a few years ago.

Like his father, Katcher got involved in the bar. Krista Scully, the Alaska Bar Association's pro bono director, said Katcher, as bar president, put a new emphasis on attorneys giving their time. He also helped start the MLK Day pro bono clinic, at the Mountain View Boys and Girls Club and by phone statewide.

Family law problems are the most common needs.

"Those of us who have had the blessings of growing up in homes without violence," Katcher said, should help out those not so fortunate.

But I wonder if it makes sense for a state that is so dangerous for women to rely on volunteers to try to solve that problem.

Christine Pate, director of the Legal Program for the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said she can't place all the deserving cases she receives, despite having up to 80 attorneys donating around $1 million of legal work a year.

No one knows exactly how many lawyers are needed to fill the need.

"We absolutely know there's a justice gap," said Scully, from the bar association. "We'd love for every single person to be represented that needed it."

Pate's agency receives no help from the state of Alaska to find free attorneys for women. It relies on federal grants. The state contributed $75,000 a year until recently, but that went away in budget cuts.

It's hard to believe Alaska is serious about domestic violence and sexual assault when women who need attorneys cannot get representation.

Having a strong champion in court is what it takes to get children out of violent homes and the risk of learning to be the next generation's abusers. For now, it's up to good fathers, and good mothers, who know what home is supposed to be like, to make that happen.

"I remember my father, who was a very successful lawyer, and he used to say he liked the law so much that he would do it for free," Katcher said. "As I get older, I think I really understand what he means, which is that yes, you're doing it for free, but there really is a reward, there really is a payoff … the satisfaction of making a difference, protecting a child."

He continued, "And I wish more lawyers did it, because we need them."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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