Alaskan interior court system expands with courthouse

By Amanda Bohman
Nenana, Alaska (AP) July 2010

For decades, justice in this small town 55 road miles southwest of Fairbanks took place in a log cabin built in the early 1950s.

And when the log building was deemed too small, judges conducted trials in the community center or the town school. Juries sometimes deliberated cases in a court employee break room.

That ended this spring when the Alaska Court System opened a new courthouse on the Parks Highway. On Friday, local and court system officials came together to celebrate the new Nenana Regional Courthouse.

The event drew three Alaska Supreme Court Justices, including Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti, who said the courthouse represents growth and advancement of the court system.

The facility will serve as a hub for Interior villages along the Yukon and Tanana rivers, from Huslia to Minto and Bettles to Livengood.

The Nenana magistrate said the entire former courthouse, including offices, would fit inside the courtroom of the new courthouse.

“It gives the people of Nenana another thing to be proud of,” William Lord, Nenana Native Council first chief, said.

The facility is set up to handle trials of rural Alaskans accused of any type of crime. Jurors will reportedly be drawn from Nenana and nearby communities along the road system. The facility’s first felony trial, involving a Fort Yukon man, is scheduled to take place next month.

The impetus for the new courthouse involves a 2006 Alaska Court of Appeals ruling, which clarified the right of defendants to be tried at a court location nearest the place of the alleged crime.

According to the opinion, the goal is to obtain jurors “who are more likely to share the culture and life experience of the community where the crime occurred.”

Before the opinion, defendants from Interior villages were commonly tried in Fairbanks.

Faith Peters of the Tanana Tribal Council applauded the new facility.

“Congratulations to a new system that is going to deal with Alaska Natives and Interior people,” she said.

The new courthouse provides a courtroom with spectator seating for 80 people, a jury deliberation room, two attorney conference rooms and holding areas for defendants. Attached to the building is a suite of offices for Alaska State Troopers.

The new courthouse caused the court system to close its court facility in nearby Healy and consolidate services in Nenana.

Nenana Mayor Jason Mayrand said courthouses are the kinds of buildings that help exemplify a town. He welcomed Nenana’s modern new courthouse.

“It’s definitely a cornerstone for our community,” he said.

A court system official said the lease for the new building is $78,000 a year. That’s nearly six times the yearly rent at the old courthouse, according to the owner, former Lt. Gov. Jack Coghill.

Coghill, a signer on the Alaska Constitution, said the court system was a good tenant and he was sorry to see them go but “you never stand in the way of progress.”

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities rents the log structure now. Coghill said a church is lined up to rent the building in the fall.

Coghill built the log cabin more than 50 years ago with proceeds after winning the Nenana Ice Classic. The court system had been Coghill’s tenant since 1974, he said.