Debra O’Gara, who is Tlingit, Yup’ik, and Irish, is leaving the magistrate judgeship in Petersburg, Wrangell, and Kake to pursue a PhD in Indigenous Studies. (Photo courtesy of Debra O’Gara)

The Alaska State Court Magistrate Judge for Petersburg, Wrangell, and Kake has retired after being in the position for less than a year. As Angela Denning reports, Debra O’Gara plans to pursue a PhD in Indigenous Studies.

Debra O’Gara is leaving her job as the regional magistrate but she’s not leaving Petersburg. She plans to pursue a PhD in Indigenous Studies through a distance program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

It’s an opportunity she says she couldn’t pass up.

“I applied just to see if I could get in and I did!” O’Gara said.

O’Gara says working on her doctorates would be difficult with a full-time job so she’s decided to let that commitment go.

“I’m close enough to retirement as it is so I’m just going to retire a little bit early and pursue this path of study and researching,” O’Gara said.

In her studies, O’Gara plans to focus on traditional dispute resolution practices of the Tlingit people to see if there is anything that could be adapted into the current court systems. O’Gara, who is Tlingit and Yup’ik, says she’s very excited about the subject.

“It’s something I’ve been dabbling in and trying to do reading and research for a couple of years,” she said.

O’Gara has had a long career in law working for 30 years in both tribal and state court systems. She came to the Petersburg judgeship last August after 14 years as a judge with the Tlingit and Haida Tribal Court in Juneau. In Rural Alaska, many present-day tribal courts are just starting up with new federal funding through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and O’Gara wants to be there to help them.

“I’m excited about going back and doing some consultation work with tribes which is actually what I was doing the last couple of years prior to relocating to Petersburg,” O’Gara said, “and just working with small, Native villages that are looking at setting up some kind of courts.”

She also wants to continue to work with the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center at the village level on strengthening responses to sexual assault and domestic violence.

O’Gara’s last day on the job will be May 12. The closing date for applying for the position has been extended until May 11.  Magistrate judges are appointed to four year terms.