Early life and career
Rabinowitz was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to a Jewish-American family. His paternal grandfather had emigrated from Riga, Latvia to Woodbine, New Jersey at age fourteen, leaving his own family behind. Jay Rabinowitz grew up in Brooklyn, New York where his father, Milton, worked as a bookkeeper for a wholesale fish distributor during the Great Depression. Jay served in the U.S. Army Air Forces near the end of World War II. During his service overseas Rabinowitz happened to meet his great-uncle Chaim, whom he'd never before met, in a displaced persons camp in Germany. Chaim was the family's only relative in Europe who had survived the Holocaust. Following some careful forgery of paperwork, Chaim was able to join his relatives in Brooklyn after the war ended.
After returning home, Jay Rabinowitz attended Syracuse University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949.
He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1952 and was admitted to the New York State Bar Association the same year. After practicing law in New York City for five years, Rabinowitz moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, accepting a position as law clerk to U.S. Territorial Court Judge Vernon Forbes in 1957.
In 1958, Rabinowitz was admitted to the Alaska Bar Association and clerked for the U.S. District Court in Fairbanks, Alaska. He was appointed Superior Court Judge in Fairbanks in 1960.
Alaska Supreme Court
Following his appointment by Governor Bill Egan, Rabinowitz was sworn in as an Alaska Supreme Court justice on March 4, 1965. Rabinowitz would remain on the state Supreme Court for 32 years in that role, including four non-consecutive three-year terms as Chief Justice. The Alaska Constitution specifically prohibits consecutive terms as Chief Supreme Court Justice. Egan appointed Rabinowitz to the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws in 1971, where he headed three drafting committees and served on numerous others.
During his time on the bench, he was a strong and articulate voice for safeguarding the civil liberties of Alaskans. He wrote landmark opinions in cases involving privacy, reproductive freedom, search and seizure, self-incrimination, and free speech. (See Feldman, J. and Orlansky, S., "Justice Rabinowitz And Personal Freedom: Evolving A Constitutional Framework," 15 Duke-Alaska Law Review 1 June 1998). His law clerks included Stephan Williams, Michelle Stone, Mark Regan, Becky Snow, Susan Burke, Mark Ashburn, Peter Mozarski and Andrew Kleinfeld, now a judge of United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Rabinowitz retired February 28, 1997 at age 70. By then, he had written more than 1,200 court opinions, 200 of them dissenting. Rabinowitz was particularly sensitive to the ways in which the law affected the legal rights of Alaska Natives and authored several noteworthy judicial opinions that respected Native traditions in areas of family rights and adoption, education, and law enforcement.
...[W]e conclude that citizens of the State of Alaska have a basic right to privacy in their homes under Alaska's constitution. This right to privacy would encompass the possession and ingestion of substances such as marijuana in a purely personal, non-commercial context in the home unless the state can meet its substantial burden and show that proscription of possession of marijuana in the home is supportable by achievement of a legitimate state interest.
His opinion effectively legalized the possession of marijuana in Alaska.
Death and legacy
Rabinowitz died June 16, 2001 in Seattle, WA from complications of leukemia . In remembrance of him, Alaska's Governor Tony Knowles ordered all Alaska state flags to be lowered to half-staff for five days. Said Knowles:
- "Jay Rabinowitz devoted his life to the law.... He began his career when Alaska was a young state. His steady, thoughtful manner resulted in a body of law that will have a lasting impact on Alaska as we know it. I personally sought his guidance and input on a number of critical issues facing our state. I will miss his sense of humor and his integrity. Jay's legacy will not be forgotten."
The Rabinowitz Courthouse in downtown Fairbanks, Alaska is named after him.
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