Daniel Winfree takes it as a point of pride that he’s Alaska’s first native-born chief justice. “We’re a young state, and we have no law school,” he says. “Historically people come here from other places.” In fact, he’s only the third native Alaskan of some 26 justices who have ever served on the supreme court—all of them born in the territory of Alaska before statehood in 1959.
Having grown up in America’s Last Frontier, Winfree is of hearty stock. His grandfather drove a dogsled team carrying freight to miners during the Klondike Gold Rush. Winfree himself worked as a truck driver and in construction camps for the trans-Alaska pipeline before becoming a lawyer.
But having historical context doesn’t always make him popular with Alaskans. Five years ago, the court upheld the governor’s veto of a portion of a state dividend that grants residents annual payments of up to $3,000 from oil, gas, and mineral royalties.
“I wrote the opinion that it was subject to the governor’s veto…and the dividend was half what it was supposed to be,” Winfree says. “I wasn’t particularly popular. My name is still bandied about today.”
But big decisions don’t faze Winfree. He considers his role the most rewarding of his career, which includes 25 years in private practice before being appointed to the high court in 2007. Chief justices normally serve three years, but Winfree will serve only two. By law he must retire in 2023, when he turns 70. “I’ve loved every minute of every day, even on a bad day,” he says.