KNBA - KBC

Alaska Native magistrate judge brings tribal court skills to Petersburg bench

Sep 18, 2019

Debra O’Gara is the new Magistrate Judge at the Petersburg Tribal Court.

The top tribal judge for the Tlingit and Haida Tribal Court, Debra O’Gara, is the new magistrate judge for three small communities in Southeast Alaska: Petersburg, Wrangell and Kake

O’Gara hopes the transition will help build bridges between the tribal and state court systems.

Debra O’Gara is working late on a Wednesday evening. She’s at the Courthouse in downtown Petersburg trying to figure out how the place works.

“I’ve only been on the job for two weeks,” she said.

It’s a different kind of judgeship than she’s had for the last 14 years. She was the Presiding Judge for the Tlingit and Haida Tribal Court in Juneau.

“Rules are a little more relaxed. Everybody that comes into court can talk,” O’Gara said. “There’s some evidence rules but they’re not as strictly adhered to as in the state court.”

O’Gara’s been a lawyer for 30 years in both tribal court and state court. So why move back to the western court system? You could say that O’Gara is comfortable moving between cultures. She spent her youth with family in urban Seattle and in remote Mountain Village on the Lower Yukon River.

“Two completely different worlds, absolutely two completely different worlds,” O’Gara said.

O’Gara is used to the western way and the Native way of living. She is Yup’ik, Tlingit, and Irish.

She went on to become a lawyer and earn her Master’s Degree in Public Administration. She says by taking this new job as Magistrate Judge she hopes to build cultural bridges.

“I think it’s paramount that our two different court systems work hand in hand, not in competition with each other but really in collaboration,” O’Gara said, “and so I see this job as an opportunity to help build those collaborative ties a little bit closer starting one community at a time.”

None of the three communities O’Gara is overseeing has a tribal court. Most present-day tribal courts in Alaska are just starting up with new federal funding through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Tlingit and Haida court in Juneau is an exception having formed 15 years ago. Still, O’Gara says she plans to bring those tribal court skills with her to her new state court job. That might include bringing back Circle Peace Making.

“For some of our disputes, especially in our families, sometimes a non-adversarial forum can sometimes result in some really good decisions,” O’Gara said.

With Circle Peace Making, all the parties get together and come up with a problem solving decision and how they, as participants, will implement it.

“It makes it a little bit more productive, I think, and long lasting,” O’Gara said.

O’Gara’s interest in law started with civil rights stories her family told her. She remembers hearing about her Tlingit grandmother being arrested for helping someone vote.

“And this was before women had the vote and this was before Natives had the right to vote and she was arrested for helping one of the elders in Wrangell to go down and vote,” O’Gara said.

Her grandmother’s son happened to be a lawyer and defended them in court and the charges were dismissed. And that planted the seed for O’Gara.

Now, she hopes that her new job will help inspire more Natives to become part of the justice system.

“If I can open up the door just a little bit more to make room for more Native judges on the bench throughout Alaska of all levels of our state court system then it will be worth relocating here for however long they’ll have me here,” she said.

Magistrates have limited jurisdiction and usually oversee misdemeanor cases. According to a press release by Alaska’s First Judicial District, O’Gara might fill-in as a Standing Master for the Superior Court, because of her experience.

O’Gara fills the Petersburg position after Magistrate Judge Desi Burrell retired after 20 years of service.