Judge Una Gandbhir, pointing to own experience, says opportunity is abundant within Alaska Court System

Gandbhir, encouraging participation and outreach, says people should feel like ACS is their court
Published: Nov. 29, 2022 at 4:49 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Within the Alaska Court System is a group of women who are carving their own paths in the legal world. Among them is Judge Una Gandbhir, who is now part of a bench that is becoming more and more reflective of Alaska’s diversity.

There’s much work to be done within the walls of a busy courthouse. Gandbhir’s is laser-focused on cases, the people they involve, and the stories behind them.

“That’s a lot of what being on the bench is, is listening,” she said, “and listening, not just waiting your turn to talk, but actually listening to what people have to say.”

Her entry into the court system, however, includes many firsts: a first-generation American raised in Boston, who was also first-born to her parents, Gandbhir is also the first Indian-American judge in all of Alaska.

“In a lot of ways, I feel like I’m the first to do things in my family, and maybe the first in certain ways, but there’s always somebody who I can look to and say, ‘This person made it possible for me to walk where I’m walking,’” Gandbhir said.

Her parents immigrated to the United States for schooling, she said, first living in Canada and then landing in Boston, where Gandbhir was raised. There was a big Indian community in the city, she explained, allowing for participation in many social events, holidays, and other gatherings that helped keep the culture prominent in her life. Her parents, though, made a point of highlighting both American and Indian heritage throughout her early years, and those of her younger siblings.

“Those kinds of things really helped us stay in touch with our culture and stay grounded,” she said. “But the thing that was really kind of unique about my parents is that they also understood that they had come somewhere where their kids were going to not be raised the way that they were. And they accepted that.”

Fast forward a couple of decades and through several jobs in administration, and Gandbhir was eyeing a next step in her career. She arrived in Alaska nearly 30 years ago without any plans to stay, landing here by way of a law school internship. The career path was a far cry from her childhood dream of being a veterinarian.

“Organic chemistry did me in,” she laughed.

Her continued love for reading and writing, though, have served her well, and she went on to attend law school. That was mainly because she thought it could help her make a difference in public policy, public health, and human rights, she said.

“When I moved to Alaska, it felts like my whole world opened up,” Gandbhir said, speaking not only on the ample outdoor space — which she gets out and hikes in as much as possible — but also about her career trajectory.

“I never really thought about becoming a judge, but I practiced in front of a lot of probate court, and when that person retired, I applied for the job and got it, and eventually decided to try and apply for superior court and finally ended up here,” Gandbhir said.

Appointed to the bench in 2018, she has overseen a variety of cases since then. Several have drawn national attention: in 2021, Gandbhir ordered the State of Alaska to allow in-person visits for lawyers and jailed clients, whether vaccinated or not, despite the Department of Corrections suspending all visitation options in 2020 as a COVID-19 prevention method; in early 2022, she had ruled elections results couldn’t be certified until visually impaired voters were given “a full and fair opportunity” to vote, though the decision was overturned by the Alaska Supreme Court shortly thereafter.

Challenging cases, however, are something for which Gandbhir said she feels she was prepared, particularly through her years focusing on elder and disability law while leading her own firm.

“It was a lot of helping people plan for kids who had special needs or for people who were facing a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, or another illness, to plan ahead so they had control over what their future ended up being,” she explained. “I ended really ended up enjoying that. It was a really different area of law, wasn’t really civil, wasn’t really criminal; it was kind of its own little area.

“But that background that I have gives me some insight into their perspectives, and also helps me realize that not everybody has the same experience,” she continued. “My experience and my story is very different from anyone else who comes into this courtroom. And it’s nice to find those commonalities, and also listen for the things that I don’t know.”

Up for retention in the 2022 General Election, nearly 56% of those who cast votes on whether or not to retain her submitted ballots in favor of her continued service. To be in her position is a privilege, Gandbhir said, and one for which she is grateful.

“We have a really generally supportive and close-knit legal community,” she added. “It’s really not a place where you feel like you’re on your own. And I think that really makes a difference in how the legal profession works here.

“There are so many women in Alaska and on the bench,” she continued, “there’s women who have been examples, who have raised other women up, encouraged them, and that’s made a huge difference.”

While she’s breaking barriers with her everyday work, however, she wants people to know that there’s a place for them in the court system, too. Serving during a jury trial, for example, is a privilege and a service to fellow Alaskans; it’s an opportunity, she said, to sit in the position of judge for the purposes of determining an outcome, even though she doesn’t have 12 robes to give out. She tells the juries in her courtroom that the justice system is theirs, and to participate is to be a part of that.

“The doors are open to everybody,” she said, “and it’s really important that people feel like this is their court.

“We have a really good judiciary here, and everyone knows that their job is to listen,” she continued. “If you want to be heard, you can be heard. And it may take time, like everything else — things take time — but, knowing that you’re going to get a fair shake and you’ll be heard and judges are making the best decisions they can with the information they have, that should reassure people.”

You can learn more about the Alaska Court System here, which is also where you can find information about court openings, closures, document requests, various law sectors, and more. If you are wanting to learn more about the Anchorage Youth Court, an after-school program for young Alaskans, visit this website.