Break out the scotch for former district attorney James Scott

KTOO reporter Lisa Phu interviews District Attorney James Scott in January 2015 after he dropped the case against a Juneau woman for tripping traps. Scott's picture of Abraham Lincoln can be seen in the upper right.
KTOO reporter Lisa Phu interviews District Attorney James Scott in January 2015 after he dropped the case against a Juneau woman for tripping traps. Scott’s picture of Abraham Lincoln can be seen in the upper right. Current District Attorney Angie Kemp has left it hanging in the same place. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

A former district attorney for Juneau specifically requested that no formal memorial service would be held when he died.

So there won’t be one.

Instead, 52-year-old James Scott, who passed away Nov. 11 after a four-year struggle with colon cancer, had asked his friends and colleagues to get together on Saturday and drink some good scotch — not the cheap stuff — and laugh until everybody’s cheeks hurt.

Angie Kemp treasures two parting gifts from her former boss.

One is a small book titled “Proverbs, Epigrams, Aphorisms, Sayings and Bon Mots” that Scott used to mine for little nuggets to sprinkle into his closing arguments in trials.

The other is an old framed picture of Abraham Lincoln.

As Kemp tells the story, a very young James had saved an expensive magazine with Lincoln’s picture printed on the back. But he had mixed feelings when his mom cut out the page and had it framed for him.

“James was so upset with her! ‘Cause it destroyed the… I suppose it was worth something,” Kemp recalled. “But he was like ‘Thank you, Mom! But, you know, I really wish you hadn’t done that!’”

Scott admired Winston Churchill as well as Lincoln, and he was an avid history buff.

According to longtime friend and Deputy Attorney General Robert Henderson, Scott always had a witty or interesting story to tell, whether it was about his family, a case or a colleague, or an event from history.

“Mundane, but incredibly funny and powerful,” Henderson said. “James was one of those guys that in every story he told, there was always a message in it.”

Listen to the story about former District Attorney James Scott:


Scott started in Illinois as a private attorney and then prosecutor. He arrived in Ketchikan in 1999 to work as an assistant district attorney, later becoming district attorney for Juneau in 2013.

Henderson said Scott took seriously his role as a mentor to other attorneys.

Kemp already was an assistant district attorney in the same Juneau office, and said Scott was someone she could trust and rely on.

“There were occasions he told me I was wrong and, God bless him, I think that I’m glad I had someone like him to call me out,” she said.

Kemp said Scott demonstrated compassion and professionalism, and was respectful to everyone, even opposing counsel.

“What he taught me is that you really don’t have to be this sort of ‘Law & Order’ perceived bully in order to be effective at your job,” she said.

District Attorney James Scott (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
District Attorney James Scott (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Kemp said convicted defendants even asked if he could serve as a job reference after they turned their life around.

Henderson said Scott revered the U.S. Constitution and epitomized the principles of a prosecutor by representing the community or society at large.

“He always did what was right, not what was required to win,” he said.

For example, one of Scott’s cases involved citations issued to a Juneau woman for tripping traps she believed endangered other wildlife and hikers’ dogs. Scott said the case fell between a technical violation of the law and whether or not a case should be brought.

But Scott also thought the woman’s efforts to free a trapped eagle were admirable.

“If she finds herself in the same situation, I hope she does the same thing again,” Scott said in January 2015. “However, before she takes it upon herself to trip traps generally, I really encourage her to meet with and talk to the other folks with an interest in this to keep us from having to go to court at all. That’s really my goal here.”

Scott used his prosecutorial discretion to drop the case.

All during his time in Juneau, Scott struggled with colon cancer, diagnosed at the age of 48, two years before health agencies recommend adults’ first colonoscopy.

“Anytime any of us would get a stomach ache, instantly he would say ‘make sure you take care of that. Go to the doctor. Use your coverage and be diligent about your health,’” Kemp said. “That was something that I think it really struck him.”

Kemp said Scott was given six months to live back in late 2013. But he wanted to secure his wife and daughter’s future, and live to see his daughter graduate from college.

He persisted with a positive outlook and unwavering work ethic, Kemp said., and he would regularly work through intense pain or being sick, the effects of multiple abdominal surgeries and chemotherapy.

She said his perseverance and courage made all of their own issues and complaints seem petty and trivial.

“You wouldn’t know it when you talked to him,” Henderson said. “When you talked to him, the conversation wasn’t about him.”

Scott quietly retired last June, telling judges and attorneys beforehand that he didn’t expect to be around in the fall.

His former protégé, Kemp, was named to take his place as district attorney.

She now has his office with the same worn-looking office furniture. It’s just arranged differently.

But up in the corner is that old picture of Abe, right where he left it.

Juneau Police Department's Mobile Incident Command Center blocks the road to the crime scene on Saturday night, Dec. 3, 2016. (Photo by Quinton Chandler/KTOO)
Then-Juneau District Attorney James Scott announces Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, the role a new statewide protocol for officer-involved shootings will play in the investigation of shooting in Juneau. (Photo by Quinton Chandler/KTOO)
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