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Access to Justice and Legal Research Without Law Schools: The Case of Alaska

[Source: Photo by Chandni Dan on Unsplash]

In the legal community within the United States, Alaska has a unique feature. With a population of over 700,000 people and rich in natural resources, the largest state in the country has no law school. This unique situation poses a number of salient issues and challenges which Alaskans have to deal with on a daily basis. Broadly speaking, not having a law school in Alaska affects access and preservation of the state’s legal history and its current development, accessibility to territorial archives, meaningful inclusion of underrepresented voices, knowledge of indigenous peoples’ legal traditions, navigating a complex legal system, remote communities’ access among others. In order to talk about these topics and more, I organized a zoom interview with two outstanding court law librarians in the state working tirelessly every day: Anna Russell, Alaska Branch Librarian, U.S. Courts Library for the Ninth Circuit and Susan Falk, Alaska State Law Librarian, Alaska State Court Law Library. From their respective law libraries both located in the state’s largest city, Anchorage, their relentless work, motivation and drive make sure the people of Alaska have access to the best library and research services, considering the resources at hand.

Legal Research and Access to Justice

Public access to law libraries is a cornerstone to access to justice. WIthout the public having free access to legal information, and learning and researching about the legal systems and rules governing them, access to justice simply doesn’t exist. In Alaska, the federal and state court libraries are the only two law libraries. There are no county law libraries or academic law libraries in the entire state. This means that through their law libraries, Russell and Falk are responsible for serving the entire legal community in Alaska, local communities and legal researchers everywhere.

[Source: Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash]

In order to respond to everyone’s legal research needs, the two court law libraries have to maintain a more strict collection development and management policy, especially before downsizing any resources. The fact that there is no academic law library prevents them from relying on a big academic institution with a large legal collection to help them alleviate the costs of maintaining and updating such a collection. Furthermore, The lack of professors and scholars locally working in Alaska precludes both court law libraries from justifying large historical collections from which they could pursue substantive research benefiting everyone in the community. Consequently, the absence of a law school in the state creates a vacuum of scholarly produced treatises about Alaska which can be incredibly useful and relevant for legal research. Instead, both court law libraries maintain a collection that is exclusively “practical and historical”.

Access to justice, especially for Native Alaskan people is severely limited without a law school in the state. The intricacies and peculiarities of tribal, state and federal law in Alaska are incredibly complicated and there is simply no local academic institution or law school to fill that gap, and help legal professionals to understand and navigate these complex legal systems. As noted by the interviewees, “the legal community comes to Alaska [after] having gone to law school outside Alaska, and then either [come back] as a law clerk or [have] practiced for a while before they come to Alaska”. This means that the local legal knowledge and legal professional identities specific to the state are learned at work without the roots, continuity and academic background that a local law school could have provided. Alaska has tribal governments with their respective courts, constitutions, codes and entire legal traditions which get sidetracked and quite simply ignored without an academic structure producing relevant research and comprehensive scholarship or providing much-needed funding and making the necessary connections between the courts and the communities.

Both court librarians mentioned how a law school could help build a bridge “between two cultures” and alleviate the misunderstandings and hesitation between courts and communities, particularly with Native Alaskan communities. Fraught interaction with the tribal governments or native people and lack of trust can foster suspicion and skepticism between the groups which can have subsequently severe impact on any community building efforts or maintaining relationships. Professors and students working under the framework of a local law school could have helped alleviate this gap and provide a space from which you can build trust, specifically while reaching out communities which have historically been discriminated against.

On a more practical level and particularly relevant for legal researchers everywhere, both court law librarians reflected on the increased interest and availability of electronic resources especially for remote communities. Falk described the recent trend to close smaller and remote library branches and to create instead information hubs with digital kiosks and library portals. The expansion of legal information through the library’s website as well as availability of commercial legal databases have made these changes palatable. However, in these cases, there is absolutely no law librarian there to help them navigate these resources or it is impossible to get a clear picture on whether or not people know they are there. Furthermore, massive physical distances and lack of reliable broadband are also important factors to take into consideration when discussing the feasibility and impact of these initiatives on legal research and access to justice. Despite the constraints, setbacks and challenges, Falk confirmed that there is now a “law library portal in basically every place that has a court”.

Preservation and Natural Disasters

Ensuring access to legal information not only for current researchers, but also for the future is a driving force behind preservation efforts everywhere. However, in 2014, the U.S. National Archives decided to close its only office in the state and move all records to Seattle, WA. After much controversy and political pressure from the state, the National Archives struck a deal with the Alaska State Archives in the state’s capital, Juneau to house the documents there and to allocate more resources to digitize Alaskan records and make them available as soon as possible. Both court librarians remembered this controversy and how the absence of academic archives, especially those located in a law school could have made a difference in this type of situation.

The lack of a law school with a specialized team knowledgeable in preserving legal materials which can also be retrievable poses a particular problem in disaster-prone Alaska. The state faces the constant threat of natural disasters which can severely impact the accessibility of preserved legal information. Both court law libraries have put in place extensive disaster plans which they update frequently, and they have created digital backups of their collections. Their preparations and contingency plans need to take into consideration the propensity of earthquakes and volcanoes, which are unpredictable and without much of a warning. Therefore, these existential threats are very much present in their preservation and accessibility considerations, especially given the fact that there is no support whatsoever from an academic institution or law school in particular.

Comments

  1. Sarah A. Sutherland

    This is a great overview of this issue Marcelo! Thank you for sharing your perspectives on this issue. I wonder how this situation in Alaska compares to the jurisdictions in Canada that don’t have law schools: Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, NWT, Yukon, and Nunavut.

  2. Marcelo Rodríguez

    Thanks, Sarah! Perhaps another blog post in the making? ;)

  3. Great post! I can’t believe there is no law school in the largest state in the country… Kudos to the law librarians at the U.S. Courts Library for the Ninth Circuit and the Alaska State Court Law Library! “If there is a law library…there is a way”.

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