Not too many people work in an office building with signs in the elevators warning them to beware of bears wandering around outside.
James Scott ’87 still finds that funny, even though he’s lived and worked in Alaska for 14 years. The political science grad recently took over as Juneau’s top prosecutor, a fascinating job that allows him to pursue his passion—arguing in front of juries—while enjoying one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
“There’s a reason why a million people cruise this part of the world every year,” Scott told STATEside.
So how does an attorney who grew up in tiny Highland, Illinois, outside St. Louis end up 3,000 miles away in Alaska? Well, when most people go on vacation to a beautiful locale, they wistfully say, “I wish we lived in a place like this” and then go home. But when Scott traveled to the Pacific Northwest on vacation with his wife, Shari, they “absolutely fell in love with this part of the world,” he says.
“We had both lived within a three-hour drive from where we were born and raised,” Scott said. “We wanted to try our hand elsewhere. We wanted to live somewhere you want to go on vacation.”
So Scott, who went on to law school in St. Louis and practiced in Illinois and Missouri, took a job in 1999 as an assistant district attorney in the Ketchikan District Attorney’s Office. Ketchikan is about 500 miles south of Juneau at the very southern tip of Alaska’s panhandle, a smaller community not unlike Highland—except for being surrounded by “extremely high mountains and glaciers,” Scott says. (The climate on the panhandle is more like Seattle and less like the North Pole than you’d expect.)
He was named the new district attorney for Juneau in April and took over July 1, overseeing five attorneys and other staffers, with a larger jurisdiction that covers about 100,000 people. And yes, there are really signs in his building warning about the threat of wild bears roaming around downtown Juneau.
Being a prosecutor in Alaska is a little different than Illinois in other ways. There are simply fewer people living in Alaska, meaning the “pace of practice is not nearly as hectic,” Scott says. His office also deals with lots of fishing and hunting violations, though the overall case load includes a bit of everything, he said.
“Literally in this job, you can do a traffic case one day and a murder case the next,” Scott said.
The fun part
His favorite part of the job is the trials, and there too Alaska offers him a unique opportunity. Whereas states like Illinois once had jury pools comprised only of civically minded registered voters, Alaska’s jury pool includes all residents signed up to receive state-mandated payments from oil royalties.
“Everyone that can possibly be on the list is on the list,” he said. “I think that makes for better trial lawyering. You have to argue cases to an extremely diverse population of folks.
“That part doesn’t feel like a job to me. That part is fun,” Scott says.
As you’d expect, Scott spends a lot of time outdoors kayaking and hiking, even serving on a state parks advisory board. Once while kayaking, he and his daughter, now 18, came within a few feet of some killer whales. “Believe me, we did not want to be within feet of a killer whale,” Scott says.
Scott does occasionally get back to Illinois, and his alma mater, with his family. Scott is part of a Redbird legacy as well; his father, L. Maxwell Scott ’54, is an Illinois State alumnus, as were his uncles.
Scott said he’s still impressed by the quality of faculty members he studied under in the political science department in the mid-1980s. (Scott, a former page in the Illinois House, initially planned to pursue a career in politics, but got turned off to the idea after being very active in Democratic politics in Southern Illinois.)
“Looking back on it, the campus community at Illinois State was fabulous,” Scott told STATEside. “It holds a very special place in my heart.”
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.