Here is my column for the current edition of the Alaska Bar Rag.
John Rader: Legal and Legislative Pioneer
on the Last Frontier
by Cliff Groh
It was 1949 or 1950. A law student at the University of Kansas was thinking about where he would make his way upon graduation. The young man thought of Alaska, and decided to make written inquiry about the prospects for lawyers in America’s farthest north territory. His letter went to the Attorney General of the Territory of Alaska—an elected position—and in due course the law student got a letter back. The reply of Attorney General J. Gerald Williams told the young man that there were no prospects for lawyers in Alaska.
The law student looked at the letter and thought to himself “That’s where I need to go.”
Less than 10 years later, that law student took the job of Attorney General from J. Gerald Williams as Alaska transitioned from territorial status to statehood.
That young man was John Rader, a native of Howard, Kansas. Now 86, Rader has enjoyed an impressive career on the Last Frontier. This column will cover a few of the highlights:
Ø As a Special Assistant to Governor Bill Egan, as an important member of the first Alaska State Legislature, and as the first Attorney General for the State of Alaska, Rader played a critical role in getting the state government up and running;
Ø As a State Representative, Rader conceived and engineered the passage of the Mandatory Borough Act of 1963, which resulted in the formation of the local governments where more than four out of five Alaskans live; and
Ø As a State Senator in 1970, Rader led the successful effort to liberalize Alaska’s abortion law, more than two years before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Roe v. Wade.
Health problems have hampered Rader for the last four decades, which helps explain the unfortunate fact that it’s mostly old-timers who recognize his name and know of his accomplishments. This year is the 35th anniversary of Rader leaving elective office, and it’s a good time to look back on the achievements of a great Alaskan.
The Youthful Organizer of State Government: 16 Months that Shaped Alaska
After years of struggle, the Alaska Statehood Act passed and was signed into law in the summer of 1958, setting January 3, 1959 as the day Old Glory would get its 49th star. Along with great joy, these events brought a number of big challenges to Alaska.
An entire state government had to be set up, including a structure for the executive branch and a staff for that executive branch. These tasks were made significantly more difficult by the life-threatening illness of Bill Egan, the first State Governor, which left him incapacitated in a Seattle hospital for months.
Fortunately, Alaska had an ace in the hole. Seven years into his legal career that had started with his move to Anchorage in 1951, John Rader had substantial legal and political experience. He had more than six years in private practice and a year as the first in-house City Attorney for the City of Anchorage, a year in which he secured the approximate doubling of the size of the City’s territory through annexation. As a candidate in 1958 for the House of Representatives in the first State Legislature, he won the highest number of votes received to that time by a person elected to the House, either in an election for territorial or state office in Alaska. The 31-year-old pulled off this feat while simultaneously managing Egan’s successful gubernatorial campaign.
Rader served as a Special Assistant to the Governor-Elect and Governor in December of 1958 and January of 1959 before serving as chairman of the House State Affairs Committee after the first state legislative session opened in late January. Along with his fellow lawyer State Senator Tom Stewart of Juneau, Rader played in that session a critical role in drafting and getting passed the State Organization Act. The statute’s intent was “to provide a unified, integrated, and comprehensive plan of organization for the exercise of all executive and administrative functions of the State.” This statute established 12 departments and the Office of the State Governor in the executive branch, while abolishing dozens of agencies, including the Territorial Banking Board and the Coal Miners’ Examining Board.
As the legislative session was ending, Rader was appointed by Egan to serve in one of those cabinet positions as the first Alaska State Attorney General (and at 32 apparently the country’s youngest). He worked with an initial staff of five lawyers to handle the legal affairs of the brand-new state, a big contrast from the more than 285 attorneys now employed by the Alaska Department of Law.
The self-described “country lawyer” had to move quickly to confront a variety of issues. He had to litigate the abolition of fish traps, thought to have been done away with at statehood but whose legality remained a live issue if operated by Alaska Natives. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals withdrew more quickly than expected from its role as the appellate court for Alaska, leaving Rader scrambling to help set up an entire new state court system.
The Attorney General personally handled a successful defense of a challenge brought by bar owners against regulations adopted by the new State Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, including a prohibition on liquor establishments being open between 3 a.m. and 8 a.m. on weekdays. This case—Boehl v. Sabre Jet Room, Inc., 349 P.2d 585 (Alaska 1960)—was notable both for the new Alaska Supreme Court’s embrace of a broad view of the Legislature’s power to delegate authority to administrative agencies and for the identity of the lawyers representing the bar owners—Wendell Kay of Anchorage and Warren Taylor of Fairbanks, Rader’s two most prominent rivals to become Attorney General.
In a 1994 interview with University of Alaska Anchorage Professor Stephen Haycox, Rader—then 67—wondered in amazement at the scope of the decisions he made in his early 30s as Attorney General, suggesting that it was the “recklessness of youth” and being “presumptuous” that allowed him to do it.
There’s a simpler explanation. Rader is bold, a quality he showed when he resigned after less than 11 months on the job as Attorney General. He said at the announcement of the decision in 1960 that he wanted to return to private practice in Anchorage, and Haycox wrote in his 1998 book The Law of the Land that Rader felt that by the time of his resignation “the principal focus of his attention, the transition from territorial to state government, had been accomplished.” In a 2013 interview with this column’s author, Rader explained the timing of his resignation as also being influenced by his desire to have a successor confirmed during the 1960 legislative session, when that confirmation appeared likely to be more easily accomplished.
Haycox also noted in his book Rader’s interest in running for Governor, as Egan was not a certain candidate for re-election in 1962. By late 1961—at age 34 and just 10 years after his arrival in the state—Rader was an announced candidate for the Democratic nomination for Governor.
Although Rader campaigned for months while also practicing law at Hartlieb, Groh & Rader (see the author’s note below), he withdrew when Egan finally announced his intention to run for re-election. Rader was still able to get back into policy-making, however, by again getting elected to the State House in 1962.
Dive Bars, Dirty Water, Loose Dogs, and Tax Inequity: Father of the Mandatory Borough Act of 1963
Once back in the Legislature, Rader did something many politicians talk about a lot in theory but often avoid in practice. He picked an important problem and took the lead in proposing a solution he thought was good policy, even though that proposed solution was controversial.
That problem was the lack of regional government, which differs in Alaska from what is seen in almost every other state. Although there are cities in Alaska as in other states, there are no counties in the Great Land. Instead, boroughs are the units of government that stand in between cities and the state government. The Alaska Constitution provides that boroughs “shall be established in a manner and according to standards provided by law,” but the establishing process was going very slowly in the years immediately after statehood. By 1963, only one—the Bristol Bay Borough—had been formed. A substantial and growing percentage of Alaskans lived outside of cities with no form of local government.
This vacuum left room for a slice of Wild West in the north, generating numerous problems. Sleazy bars staffed by B-girls operated around the clock outside the city limits of various communities, generating crime that spilled over to local citizens. With no animal control, loose dogs threatened children and adults. Public health was at risk with the difficulty of getting water and sewage facilities to untaxed areas, and tax inequity was increasing. On the other hand, those enjoying their lack of local taxes howled at attempts by cities to grow by annexation and vigorously resisted the voluntary formation of regional boroughs that would bring them into a local government’s tax base.
Rader looked at this mess in1963 and saw the matter of boroughs as “the greatest unresolved political problem in the State.” With his sharp insight and experience as a local government lawyer, the lawmaker concluded that the combination of the big problems caused by the areas without local government and the low probability of success of local efforts to form boroughs—particularly those of an appropriate regional size—meant that it was up to the Legislature to require the formation of a number of boroughs. What’s more, this formation had to be forced immediately and in a single stroke.
Rader introduced legislation that would require formation of boroughs around the state with sweetening provisions that provided those new boroughs with grants of land and cash from the state. The measure’s lack of popularity showed clearly in Rep. Rader’s inability to find a single co-sponsor for this bill. The subject of boroughs might sound boring, but this was one of the most controversial and hotly debated bills ever considered in the Alaska Legislature. Picking this issue to go out alone on was a risky move for an ambitious politician like Rader who continued to harbor ambitions for statewide office and looked like what one legislative colleague called “a man to bet on.”
Rader had some assets in this struggle. In only his second year in the Legislature, he had a leadership position, serving as House Democratic Leader and chairman of the minority caucus. (Although split 20-20 between Democrats and Republicans, the body was run by a Republican-dominated coalition.) Rader also used some of the best skills of an attorney in the Legislature—reading widely, thinking broadly, researching intensely, writing articulately—to develop and sell the bill.
Not all of what Rader used to get the Mandatory Borough Act of 1963 enacted was the straightforward tactics and strategy found in law books or recommended by professors. The editors of the book The Metropolitan Experiment in Alaska reference in an introductory chapter the “intense parliamentary maneuvering” involved in the legislation’s passage, but more striking are the adroit political moves Rader sets out in his own chapter in that same book, published in 1968. (That book was published the same year Rader lost a race for the Democratic nomination for Alaska’s single seat in the U.S. House to State Sen. Nick Begich of Anchorage, who lost the general election that year before winning it in 1970.) In his chapter—blandly entitled “Legislative History”—Rader recounts that to get the bill out of the House he rallied “the competently-controlled Republican-controlled House” against “an incompetent Democratically-controlled Senate.” Then—after the bill had become law but while there was an outcry for a special session to repeal it—Rader told the State Democratic Convention that all Democrats should join to fight off a Republican attack on a bill mostly supported by Democrats.
The law stuck, and it had a big effect. The Mandatory Borough Act produced the formation of boroughs in Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Kodiak Island, the Kenai Peninsula, Matanuska-Susitna, Fairbanks, and Anchorage (unified in 1975 into a municipality). Those local governments cover well over 80 percent of Alaska’s population.
Leader of Fight to Liberalize Abortion Laws in 1970
Following his defeat in the 1968 Democratic primary for the U.S. House, Rader managed that same year to get elected again to the Legislature, this time to the State Senate. In his first term in that body, Rader led an effort to liberalize abortion laws that resulted in one of the biggest political reversals in Alaska history.
At the beginning of 1970, abortion was illegal in Alaska except to save the life of the pregnant woman. Rader saw that policy as unjust and resolved to try to change the law.
As with the Mandatory Borough Act seven years before, Rader started off alone in the Legislature, introducing an abortion reform measure without a single co-sponsor. Then came help from a wave of grass-roots organizers who helped build a broad and diverse coalition that included the Alaska Medical Association, conservationists, and a number of religious figures. Just over three months after Rader put in a bill by himself, the Legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto to enact a bill that allowed a woman to obtain an abortion of a non-viable fetus by a physician in a hospital or other approved facility.
Adopted more than two years before the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision, this law made Alaska one of only four states to substantially decriminalize its abortion laws.
The ACLU gave Rader a Champion of Women award in 2010, and Planned Parenthood of the Greater Northwest makes an annual award for advocacy in Rader’s name.
Explanations of Rader’s Impact
Health issues led Rader to end his 15-year legislative career by declining to run for re-election at the conclusion of his service as State Senate President in 1977-1978, two of most significant legislative sessions in Alaska history. With the exception of two stints as an advisor, that decision essentially marked Rader’s withdrawal from public life.
Rader had great influence in the quarter-century of his public life in Alaska, and it’s worth thinking about how he did it. Part of it is his exquisite timing in disregarding the Territorial Attorney General’s advice and heading north when he did. In that sense, Rader resembled A.B. “Banjo” Paterson, author of “Waltzing Matilda,” who wrote near the end of his life that in living in Australia as it was gaining its independence, he was like an animal that “had the luck to walk on the lava while it was cooling.”
But it wasn’t just good fortune that made Rader influential. His intelligence and boldness have already been remarked upon. Also important are his deep thoughtfulness, dedication, skills as an orator, and manners of an old-school gentleman.
While endorsing his re-election in 1972, the Anchorage Daily News called Rader “one of the ablest legislators Alaska has ever had” and stated that “Alaska has produced few more capable men in public life than John Rader.”
Commenting in 2004 on Rader’s tenure as Attorney General, Professor Haycox wrote that Rader “set a high standard of legal competence, political acumen and straight-on honesty.”
We would do well to think about John Rader’s public life as a role model for us as citizens, as lawyers, and as lawmakers.
Cliff Groh is an Anchorage lawyer and writer who has worked as an aide for the Alaska State Legislature and as Special Assistant to the Alaska Commissioner of Revenue. John Rader was a law partner of Cliff Groh’s father and was one of his father’s closest friends. The author has reason to believe he would have the same view of John Rader even if he hadn’t grown up calling him “Uncle John.” The author thanks John Rader and the relatives, friends, and former colleagues of Rader who assisted in the preparation of this article, but the interpretations and conclusions are solely those of the author. Cliff Groh will return in future Alaska Bar Rag columns to analysis of the investigations and trials arising out of the federal government’s probe into Alaska public corruption. He welcomes your bouquets, brickbats, tips, and questions at email@example.com.