A prestigious award named for the first woman and first Alaska Native District Court judge in Alaska was awarded to a Unalakleet magistrate late last month. KNOM spoke with Magistrate Heidi Ivanoff, the latest recipient of the Alaska Bar Association’s Judge Nora Guinn award.
Magistrate Heidi Ivanoff was born and raised in Unalakleet and now runs a one-woman operation at the Unalakleet Courthouse. She’s not only the judge but also her own clerk, taking care of records and scheduling, among other various tasks that can come up in any given day.
Ivanoff was in the midst of one of her busy days when she got the news.
“One of the attorneys that nominated me, actually, he kind of ambushed me after a hearing and told me that I had been selected.”– Heidi Ivanoff
The Judge Nora Guinn Award goes to someone making extraordinary efforts to help residents in rural parts of the state access the legal system, particularly Alaska Natives.
The Alaska Bar Association began the Judge Nora Guinn Award in 2007. Nora Guinn was from Akiak and in 1967 became the first woman and Alaska Native District Court Judge in Alaska. She was known for speaking to defendants in English and Yup’ik. Guinn died in 2005.
Ivanoff is humble about her own accomplishments, but while talking with KNOM, a few things become clear: she is adamant about communication, making sure her clients understand what’s going on in the legal process.
“It’s always interesting to watch trials that I’m not presiding over, but maybe sitting in the back and watching and I can see people’s eyes glazing over, you know, lawyers will keep talking. And I just, oh, my stomach just like they’re not, they’re not communicating, they’re just talking [and their] words, they’re just going out in the air. So I try to put it in bites that people can chew on and understand.”– Heidi Ivanoff
Ivanoff says Western-society’s court system is often overwhelming and uncomfortable. Most of the cases don’t move through the system the way her clients are expecting. Not to mention, most things that bring people to court are usually less than pleasant.
The Unalakleet courthouse hears both misdemeanors and felonies for the communities in the southern Norton Sound, the defendants can often be people Ivanoff grew up with or knows.
As such, there’s no fancy approach in translating the legalese for Ivanoff. When she’s on the bench, she’s still from Unalakleet too.
“I guess it’s just natural for me to kind of translate [to] the language that I’m used to speaking here in the village [by] translating that really foreign language that we use in the court… most professions have kind of a foreign language, but the legal system is really bad. It has a lot of terms and concepts that are just not intuitive.”– Heidi Ivanoff
Originally an Erickson, her family moved to Unalakleet in the 1960’s as teachers for the Christian boarding school. Ivanoff’s siblings still live throughout the Norton Sound region. She went to the Lower-48 for undergrad and law school, when an internship with the Public Defender Agency in Kotzebue piqued her interest in criminal law.
“It’s very, very people oriented, it’s a lot of problem solving. It’s fast moving, thinking on your feet. It has the beginning, it has an end.”– Heidi Ivanoff
Ivanoff practiced as a public defender in Kotzebue before family concerns brought her back home to Unalakleet where she took up her practice and eventually got married.
“I married into the enormous Ivanoff family. So I’m related either by marriage or blood to more than half the village here.”– Heidi Ivanoff
That local knowledge is an advantage in her work too. And that’s one of the things that impressed rural attorney Nicole Frank. Frank is a public advocate with the Office of Public Advocacy and one of a handful of attorneys who nominated Magistrate Ivanoff for the Judge Nora Guinn Award. In working with Ivanoff, Frank saw that the magistrate took time to customize bail and release plans for every defendant.
“Each sentencing she presides over is punctuated with comments that show she knows the defendant and their family. She’s able to talk with authority about traditional values and about disciplining community members. Defendants know that she’ll hear if they’re not doing well on bail or after being sentenced.”– Nicole Frank
There are numerous challenges facing rural Alaskans who interact with the criminal justice system. That can include the vast physical distance of the land, along with cultural, and language barriers. High rates of recidivism are another issue. But Frank thinks that Magistrate Ivanoff’s work addresses some of those challenges.
“I will say that when they [defendants] go to court, one of the barriers that they should not be facing is to not understand what’s going on, or to have judicial officers who don’t understand their way of life.”– Nicole Frank
Magistrate Ivanoff’s approach to her work seems to be driven by a sense of love for and accountability to her community.
“I see really good people in court who are making poor choices. And there could be a number of reasons why they’re making poor choices. I would love to see each of the people that come in front of me just being real productive members in their communities. We’re small communities and we are tight knit. When they misbehave, it has repercussions. It ripples through the whole community.”– Heidi Ivanoff
Image at Top: Heidi Ivanoff, used with permission.