Judge James M. Fitzgerald BA, LLB’51 dies; had major impact on Alaska law

Judge James M. Fitzgerald, a former Willamette football star, a war hero and a lawyer and judge who helped shape Alaska’s legal system, has died. He was 90 and lived in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Fitzgerald was a freshman football player for Willamette until the night before the bombs began to fall on Pearl Harbor. Immediately issued a uniform, he went on to earn three Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service as a Marine gunner in the Pacific. After the war he returned to Willamette, earning undergraduate and law degrees before packing up his car and heading to Alaska. Fitzgerald applied for a job as assistant U.S. attorney in Ketchikan, which was then wild and lawless, and he built a reputation for being fearless and independent.

The U.S. Department of Justice transferred him to Anchorage, where he became city attorney. After Alaska became a state in 1959, the first governor appointed Fitzgerald special legal counsel. He later became a superior court judge and a state Supreme Court justice.

Because Alaska had no judiciary and thus no case law from which to draw, every case Fitzgerald argued as an attorney and every decision he made on the bench became part of the state’s rule of law. In 1975 President Gerald Ford appointed him a U.S. District Judge for the District of Alaska. He took senior judge status in 1989 and heard federal cases throughout Alaska and the Ninth Circuit well into his 80s.

“Alaska has lost a distinguished jurist and a good friend,” said U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland.

Fitzgerald is survived by a wife and four children.

To read a profile about Fitzgerald in the Fall 2004 issue of Willamette Lawyer, click here.