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Judge tasked with leading Public Defender Agency reflects on 15 years of life in Bethel

Terrence Haas was previously appointed to the Bethel Superior Court in 2018 and was the presiding judge of the Fourth Judicial District. Haas worked for the Alaska Public Defender Agency in Bethel for more than a decade prior to his appointment to the bench. On Sep 19, 2023, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced the appointment of Haas to lead the state Public Defender Agency.
Terrence Haas
Terrence Haas was previously appointed to the Bethel Superior Court in 2018 and was the presiding judge of the Fourth Judicial District. Haas worked for the Alaska Public Defender Agency in Bethel for more than a decade prior to his appointment to the bench. On Sep 19, 2023, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced the appointment of Haas to lead the state Public Defender Agency.

Former Bethel judge Terrence Haas is now heading up the state’s Public Defender Agency. KYUK’s Francisco Martínezcuello sat down with Haas to talk about what he has learned during his last 15 years in the community.

A shorter version aired during the Jan. 3 newscast. Below is a transcript of the interview, which has been edited for clarity.

Francisco Martinezcuello: Where are you from?

Terrence Haas: So I was born in Northern California, but I didn't grow up there. I grew up in a small town, Indiana, where I went to high school and grew up. I then lived all over the place and went to law school in Rhode Island. And it was from Rhode Island that I came to Alaska. So I came from a very small, densely populated state on the east coast to an enormous, very sparsely populated state, as far west as you get, just about.

Martinezcuello: And I guess why Alaska?

Haas:  I, like a lot of people, I always had an interest in Alaska. It's just an unusual place. It's an idea as much as it is a geographical location in a lot of people's minds. And I'm sure I was one of those people. And I'm not suggesting it was a particularly sophisticated understanding of Alaska. But when it came time to look for jobs, it was one of the options. And as I said, that a friend of mine, now a friend of mine and acquaintance at the time, was already working as a public defender here in Alaska. And so in talking to him about it, it appealed to me tremendously. And Bethel in particular appeals to me because it's such a unique place, and a place where if you put the work in and become part of the community, it's just a wonderful place to be and wonderful people. And so it wasn't a part of any grand plan. But on arriving here, I was extremely happy. And happy in Alaska. I really love Alaska too.

Martinezcuello: And what did you do before you were a lawyer?
Haas: Yeah, so before, I've been a lawyer for what feels like forever now, but before I was a lawyer, I lived in Michigan for a lot of my adult working life before becoming a lawyer in the Upper Peninsula. And while there, I worked primarily in group homes for disabled adults, and I started off in that work as a day to day, you know, providing direct care to people living in group homes and assisted living environments. And from there, I kind of moved up to being a supervisor of a number of homes and assisted living locations. And that's what I was doing when I decided to leave and go back to school.

Martinezcuello:  So it's been ingrained in you to help people.
Haas:  Yeah, absolutely. That's how my parents raised me. And that's always been just kind of foremost in my thinking about what's a good life, and what do you do with your life is, you know, being of service to your neighbors, and, you know, thinking about and grappling with the sort of difficult human situation to, you know, to me that, that that constitutes a meaningful life. That's what I wanted to do. I've been doing one version of that or another for my entire working adult life.

Martinezcuello: What are you going to miss from Bethel?
Haas  Oh, geez, where do I start? Of course I'll miss the people most of all, my friends, and my neighbors, and so on and so forth. But I'm also going to miss the lifestyle out here, which I have to say is completely and totally distinct from any other place I've ever been. The pace of things here is often much slower. The attitudes people have about what's important are very different and refreshing. And honestly, it's a wonderful place to live in that regard. And I'm really gonna miss that. I'm going to miss being out on the river. I'm going to miss, you know, the sort of relationships people have around the seasons. And you know, talking about breakup, talking about freeze-up, talking about what you're going to do tomorrow, the way that people are here. To me, it's just, it's just really nice. And I'm gonna miss that. It's a very different pace, and a very different set of priorities when you're on the road system, or when you're in the city. And I am very much gonna miss that in Bethel. And then, you know, there's all the stuff that you can do in Bethel that is just very specific to this region from getting out on the river to go fishing to, you know, snowmachining out into the wilderness. There's a lot you can do here that’s a lot harder to do elsewhere.

Martinezcuello: Recently you've received word that your, is this a promotion or you're getting appointed by?
Haas: Well, it's a move out of the judicial branch back into the executive branch where I used to work as a public defender. And I've been nominated now by the Judicial Council and appointed by the governor to be the Statewide Public Defender, basically the director of the Public Defender agency. And I'm still subject to confirmation by the legislature, but I have been appointed at this point.

Martinezcuello: How do you think you'll adapt to the mindset of that versus being a judge?
Haas: Well you know it's a little bit easier for me, probably because by way of background, I've been in Bethel for about 15 years. And the first, the first decade of that time I spent working at the public defender agency here in Bethel. So for a while I was a line attorney at the public defender. And then, for the last three or four years that I was at the public defender in Bethel, I was the supervisor of that office. And then back in 2018, I was appointed to the bench here in Bethel, and then I've been here on the bench in Bethel for about five years. And so this will be a shift back to something that I'm pretty familiar with, which is the role of advocate. In my current role, of course, I don't advocate for anybody. It's my job to provide a fair and impartial tribunal where people come and resolve their disputes before a judge who obviously doesn't have a dog in the fight, as they would say. And so it is a shift for sure, to a very different function, but it's one that I'm familiar with and have done before.

Martinezcuello: And this won't affect this new position, won't affect any of your previous cases, right?
Haas: Do you mean in terms of like, when I shift roles, will I still be involved in cases that I sat on as a judge? Is that the kind of the basic question, probably?

Martinezcuello: Yeah.
Haas: So the legal ethics, of course, require that I not be involved as an advocate in the same case where I was involved as a judge. And so they'll have to be either conflicts out of cases that continue forward while in the public defender, or a process to screen them off so that I have nothing to do with them. And so there will never be a circumstance that arises where I'm advocating as the public defender on behalf of somebody who I was the judge for that particular case. Now it's less of an issue for the public defender, because as a practical matter, in terms of individual cases, the public defender, the sort of director of the agency, doesn't appear often in court to advocate in specific cases. And so it's really an administrative matter of screening those cases off so that I am not in any way involved in decision making or anything around those cases. And it'll be, it'll take some doing, of course, to get all that set up. But the short answer is no, it'll have no impact on the cases where I sat as a judge.

Martinezcuello: I’ve been here about a year, and they've just noticed the level of violence and the crimes that are violent. And I'm interested to hear your thoughts on, you know, your past 15 years here.
Haas: Yeah, I think, you know, this is totally from the 1,000 foot level. I'm not thinking about some particular case, I'm not talking about some particular circumstance, but just thinking about my community. And why is it that you see certain problems here? First of all, I want to say right out of the gate, I think often when people look out at the world, they they see the bad things about a place sometimes before they see the good things. And the truth, the real truth about Bethel and the [Yukon-Kuskokwim] Delta and the people who live here is that they have an extremely, that we have an extremely positive culture, I think. Family is very foremost for people, people's values revolve around their relationships and their families, and the people they love and the people they take care of. And I think really, if you spend any time in Bethel and really look carefully, you'll see that that's really the foremost kind of aspects of the culture here, both the Indigenous culture, but also just the community generally. In terms of the things that you see, like in the court or the or social problems surrounding substance abuse, or physical assault, or sexual assault. You know, I think there's a long complex historical set of circumstances, a constellation of things that led to that situation out here in Western Alaska and in this part of Western Alaska, and I don't think it's a reflection of anything about the people or the culture. It's more a reflection of the circumstances here, you know, starting with contact, you know, with outsiders. The way that things have happened here in time and history, have resulted in a lot of people struggling to kind of heal from their experiences. And of course one of the things you see if you pay attention, what's happening both in court, but also just in relationships. Once something gets started, you know, once there's pain, that pain can often move from generation to generation. You know, I think that that's not a profound insight, really, that's just a fact that you recognize if you spent any time around, you know, the criminal justice system or the justice system generally. But as a judge, of course, I don't, you know, it's not my job to, and this will be true as a public defender too, it's not my job to develop a grand philosophy about the causes of social ills. My job is to be extremely fair about the people who appear in front of me, who all of them are human beings, some of them on their worst day, some of them on their best day, some of them having gone through things that bring them into my courtroom in pain or having caused pain. And I assume always from the outset, whatever it is that brings people to need that what they deserve is a fair, impartial process of justice, I guess.

Francisco Martínezcuello was the KYUK News Reporting Fellow from November 2022 through January 2024. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.
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