Justice Jennifer Henderson Ascends to Alaska Supreme Court

Justice Jennifer Henderson
Cannabis Law Special Issue

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy appointed Jennifer Stuart Henderson to be the newest member of the Alaska Supreme Court on July 7. Attorney at Law Magazine had the opportunity to ask the incoming Justice Henderson some questions regarding her career, her aspirations for her time on the bench and her outlook on the court system. 

AALM: What first drew you to a career in the law?

JH: I was first drawn to the law by a desire to help people. I liked the idea of advocating for people whose voices might otherwise be lost in a legal system that can be quite daunting even for trained attorneys. Early in my legal studies, I was particularly drawn to assisting and representing children and youth in a variety of legal contexts. My work has, of course, shifted over time, but I continue to be drawn by the idea of serving the public and assuring as much as possible that all people are able to access, and to feel heard within, the court system.

AALM: What are you most looking forward to in your new role on the Alaska Supreme Court?

JH: I am most looking forward to diving into the work – getting the opportunity to learn more about the variety of cases and controversies that come before the Alaska Supreme Court, researching and reaching decisions with my fellow Justices about application of the law or laws in any given case, and conveying that decision-making to the parties and to others in a way that is clear and understandable. I am very excited to get to work with the wonderful group of Justices sitting on the Court.

AALM: What was your first reaction upon receiving the appointment?

JH: I could not stop shaking, and it took me days to process that this was truly happening.

AALM: What do you anticipate being the greatest difference between serving on the Superior Court and the State Supreme Court? How do you plan to assimilate?

JH: The idea of applying the law to a given set of facts, and explaining the Court’s decision-making in a manner that furthers understanding of the law, will be the same, but I know there will be so many differences in what the day-to-day work will look like on an appellate level.

As a trial judge, I have become accustomed to a very busy docket encompassing a wide variety of cases, and spending most, and sometimes all, of each day in the courtroom, hearing directly from parties in order to determine factual issues and to decide the cases coming before me. Often, I would explain my decision to the parties on record at the end of a hearing. And I needed to make decisions on my own, sometimes with imperfect information and not a great deal of time. I anticipate that work on the Alaska Supreme Court will also involve a large volume of cases regarding a wide variety of subjects, but I expect that the work process itself will be more deliberate and focused upon determining and at times interpreting the law to be applied in any given controversy, and reviewing the trial court’s application of law.

The process of decision-making regarding those points will involve deliberation with a group of Justices, which will be a big change for me – and a welcome one. I also expect that much of my work moving forward will involve focus on communication of decisions in writing, being mindful not only of the parties in a given case, but also of what the public can and should understand about our decisions and what they could mean or how they could apply in a variety of contexts moving forward.

Boiled down, there are going to be a lot of changes, and I think that assimilating and making those transitions will require me to work hard, but to have patience with myself. It will also be crucial to listen and learn from others around me, while also being ready to state my thoughts.

AALM: While serving on the Superior Court, you mentioned the challenge between efficiently handling cases while giving each the attention they deserve. Do you anticipate this balance being even more of a challenge in your new role?

JH: I believe that tension will continue to exist, given the number and variety of matters that come before the Supreme Court; however, I think that the process of appellate review by a collective group of Justices will allow greater opportunity for deliberation on legal issues than I was able to experience on the Superior Court.

AALM: Can you tell us which judges or justices you most admire? What traits of theirs do you hope to emulate?

JH: There is no one particular Judge or Justice that I most admire, as I have great respect for the various strengths of so many past and current Judges and Justices. I would be amiss, though, if I did not specifically look to the Alaska Supreme Court Justice that I had the opportunity to clerk for when I first came to Alaska, Justice Warren Matthews. I admire so many of the qualities that Justice Matthews brings to his work, foremost among them his intelligence, great thoughtfulness, ability to speak and write clearly and meaningfully, and his love for his community and for Alaska. I do hope to emulate those qualities. I also believe that many prior and current Judges and Justices in Alaska, and across the country, have done a great deal of work to broaden people’s access to the court system and understanding of legal processes, which furthers litigants’ abilities to be and to feel heard. I hope to contribute to that focus moving forward.

AALM: What are some issues you anticipate coming before the Court in the coming years?

JH: Given the Judicial Canons that govern my work, I am not able to comment specifically on the issues and/or controversies that may come before me in the future. Based on some familiarity with the Court’s work over time, though, I can say that I expect there will continue to be a broad array of appeals, involving widely varying subject matter, that come before the Court, running the gamut from appeals of divorce and custody decisions, to petitions for hearing in criminal cases, to appeals raising issues of statutory construction and/or State Constitutional questions, and beyond. As with the State’s trial courts, the Alaska Supreme Court sees and considers such a wide variety of issues and questions. That is part of both the challenge and the satisfaction of getting to do this work.

AALM: What first brought you to Alaska?

JH: I first came to Alaska almost exactly twenty years ago, in August 2001, to serve as a law clerk for Justice Matthews. As with many people who come to Alaska and fall in love with the state, I thought it would be a one-year adventure and that I would return to California (I am from Southern California) to live and practice after that. As it turned out, I truly came to love the State of Alaska, and also met my now-husband during that first year here. Following my clerkship with Justice Matthews, I did return to Southern California for a one-year clerkship commitment there, but quickly moved back to Alaska after that, and now am so fortunate to get to do the work that I do and to be raising my family here.

AALM: Tell us about some of the greatest lessons you learned as an assistant district attorney.

JH: I learned so many important lessons in that work. Some of those lessons had to do with legal practice and development of skills — how to build a case, the importance of discretion in screening cases, building the confidence to speak and argue in court, how to broach different aspects of a jury trial. I think even more important than those lessons, though, was feeling out the type of attorney that I wanted to be and furthering that in my interaction with the court, with opposing counsel, and with the people that I worked with. I also learned the importance of perspective, and compassion, in approaching and handling various aspects of the cases that I worked on. Further, I had the opportunity to experience work in the Coordinated Resources Project (better known as the Mental Health Court), developed and headed at that time by Judge Stephanie Rhoades, who has become a mentor in my work as a judge. This experience helped to introduce to me the importance of the therapeutic court model.

AALM: Tell us about your work with Girls on the Run Serving Southcentral Alaska.

JH: I was originally a co-founder of Girls on the Run Serving Southcentral Alaska. Girls on the Run is an international organization that uses running as a platform for working with girls in elementary schools and helping them to navigate challenges within themselves, and in working with and communicating with others and participating within their larger communities. One of my co-founders recruited a number of volunteers, including me, to start a local chapter of Girls on the Run, and in the fall of 2011, we opened our first program at North Star Elementary.

The program grew fairly quickly, and my role transitioned over time (depending on my work and my family) from co-founder, to coach, to 5k coordinator, to board member. I found my time as a coach, getting to work directly with participants, to be particularly rewarding – getting to hear the girls talk about their experiences, hopes, and worries, and seeing them over the course of the program achieve goals and assert themselves in ways that they might not have thought possible.

Given the press of work and family, I have not been able to participate directly in Girls on the Run during the last few years, but the local nonprofit seems to be doing wonderfully and reaching many students in the Southcentral community, and I hope to return to volunteering wih them in the future.

AALM: What are some issues facing the judicial system in Alaska that you believe need to be addressed?

JH: I believe that our court system has been working to address, and will continue working to develop ways to make the court system and its processes more accessible to and understandable for members of the public, and assuring as much as possible that litigants and the public generally are able to understand decisions made by our courts and the reasons for those decisions. It is important as well for the court system, and the individuals comprising it, to continue to be aware of issues and difficulties that impact people and communities within Alaska, particularly as such issues and difficulties may affect the ability of people to access court processes and/or to trust in those processes.

AALM: Tell us about yourself outside the office. What do you do to unwind?

JH: I am married and have two young children, and the kids keep my husband and I quite busy and, I think, well-grounded and balanced. I love to spend time with my family and friends. I also rely on regular exercise. I love to run, bike, and swim, and I compete in triathlons here in Alaska (although not as often as I once did), and practice yoga regularly as well.

AALM: What is something your colleagues would be surprised to learn about you?

JH: They might be surprised that I am very much an introvert. I have worked with that over time, to be more secure in communicating with others and asserting myself when appropriate, but at heart, I am a complete introvert.

AALM: Looking back on your career so far, is there anything you’d change?

JH: I cannot think of anything that I would change. I have made plenty of mistakes and certainly have had losses in cases, but I think that those mistakes and losses have helped inform my practice moving forward, and have made me a better judge and a better person, and I expect that process will continue.

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