How a big Alaskan fishing case hooked a designated lawyer


As a young lawyer, Robert Anderson looked into the case of Katie John seeking access to the Alaskan fishing grounds her people had relied on for generations.

The reverberations are still being felt today, as Anderson awaits confirmation to serve as the Home Office’s top attorney.

In the mid-1980s, Anderson had just graduated from University of Minnesota law school. John, born circa 1915, was an Alaskan Native Elder with an ox.

Anderson had just opened the Anchorage office of the nonprofit Native American Rights Fund. He and a colleague set out to work on issues related to tribal status, tribal jurisdiction, and Aboriginal hunting and fishing rights.

“I have had the gratifying experience of representing… Katie John in her successful battle to secure her federally guaranteed subsistence fishing rights,” Anderson told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee earlier this day. year.

Delighted, yes, but the battle also lasted almost as long as the Thirty Years’ War.

From an initial lawsuit filed in 1985, what came to be known as the Katie John Litigation went through several versions before ending in 2013. It eventually expanded tribal fishing rights and helped propel Anderson into a career. legal which included passages in advocacy, academia and government (Green wire, May 19).

After shining in a Senate committee vote yesterday – his second vote due to a procedural error in the first at the end of May – Anderson appears ready to take over the attorney’s seat staff in Washington, as well as 16 regional and local offices. Overall, the office employs over 400 attorneys, with divisions covering tribal issues, ethics, energy and minerals, parks and wildlife, land, water, and general law.

Former Home Affairs Lawyer John Leshy called Anderson an “inspired choice” for the job. Leshy, who ran the office under the Clinton administration, hired Anderson to work there from the Native American Rights Fund in Alaska.

“He is very intelligent, deeply experienced, with both hands-on and academic training, quick study, a very decent person who respects career staff and listens to all points of view,” Leshy said.

As a practitioner, Anderson served as an associate lawyer for Indian affairs and then advisor to the Home Secretary for the last three years of the Clinton administration.

As an academic, Anderson taught for 20 years at the University of Washington Law School and for the past 12 years has also served as Oneida Nation Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. , where he taught one semester per year.

His students give him high marks.

“It’s funny, engaging, organized and clear,” wrote one student on RateMyProfessors, while another called him “awesome” and said his real estate law course was “my all-time favorite. !

Anderson is the co-author and editor of two books on American Indian federal law and has written a number of law journal articles that shed light on at least some of his political preferences (Green wire, January the 21st).

A common thread: that federal agencies too often do not respect tribal sovereignty and Amerindian rights.

“Tribes should have more influence in federal licensing decisions that will affect land, water and tribal people,” Anderson wrote in a 2018 article. “It is not enough to be consulted if l The licensing agency is free to reject tribal contributions subject to deferential judicial review. “

Write in the Harvard Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Journal, Anderson noted that “tribal contribution in most projects affecting tribal land and water is advisory only,” and suggested that agencies “abide by a substantial trust obligation to recognize and protect the interests tribal “.

And in a 2019 Arizona State Law Journal piece, he reflected on the Katie John litigation that defined his career.

“It’s also a story that will never end, as demographic pressures, commercial fishing interests, government indifference and hostility have the potential to forever diminish or undermine long-standing rights,” Anderson wrote.

A proud tribal citizen

Anderson was born the youngest of five brothers in rural northeastern Minnesota, near what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Superior National Forest.

“This is on the native land of the Ojibwe people, and I am proud to be a Tribal Citizen of the Bois Forte Band of the Chippewa Tribe of Minnesota,” Anderson told the Senate panel in May.

His father worked in an underground iron mine when Anderson was a young child, but the family also depended on tourism. His widowed grandmother operated a rustic family resort of seven cabins on the shores of Burntside Lake.

“I have witnessed the boom and bust cycles in logging and mining, and intense local debates about the appropriate balance between conservation and development,” Anderson said.

He graduated summa cum laude in 1980 from Bemidji State University in Minnesota, then law school three years later.

He is married to Marilyn Heiman, independent consultant in conservation and energy policy.

Since joining the University of Washington Law School, Anderson has presented at many dozen conferences and programs, ranging from a Washington State Bar conference in 2000 on the law of l water to a 2020 panel at the University of Colorado Law School on a Green New Deal for public lands. .

“These cases, these problems, you know, go on forever,” Anderson said during a videotaped symposium at the University of Tulsa in 2012 on Native American federal policies.

The case of Katie John

When Katie John passed away in 2013, at the declared age of 97, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) described her as “a piece of the soul of Alaska” and stated that she did not was “not afraid to challenge any bureaucrat standing between his native people and their opportunity to fish.”

Murkowski was the only Republican member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to back the appointment of Anderson, John’s pioneering legal champion (Green wire, May 27).

John was an Athabascan elder from the village of Mentasta, which numbered about 200 people. For years, villagers fished for salmon at the confluence of the Copper River and Tanada Creek, at a site now located in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in south-central Alaska.

But then, in 1964, the state closed all subsistence fisheries on the tributaries of the Copper River. After a 1984 petition to open the fishery to Native people before the Alaska Board of Fisheries failed, John sued state court. Represented by Anderson and the Native American Rights Fund, John won.

In 1990, John filed a new lawsuit. This time, she called on the federal government to classify the waters of Tanada Creek and the Copper River as “federal Crown lands”. Under Alaska’s National Interest Land Conservation Act, this would extend a “rural preference” to the benefit of tribes.

” I got to know [Interior] Secretary [Bruce] Babbitt and attorney John Leshy through the Katie John litigation as I sought to persuade the government to join the Alaskan native side of the litigation – a successful effort, ”Anderson recounted.

In 2014, the related litigation ended when the Supreme Court refused to consider an Alaska challenge against the Department of the Interior’s management of the state’s waterways and waterways. This left in place a 9th U.S. Court of Appeals ruling upholding Home Regulations for the management of hunting and fishing along the state’s navigable waters.

“Due to the persistence of Katie John … other Ahtna and the wider Native community of Alaska, their right to fish at a traditional fishing site survives,” Anderson wrote in 2019.

Reversing Trump’s Opinions

While awaiting confirmation, Anderson previously served as the General Counsel of Interior, as the Deputy Principal of the District Attorney.

In the first six months of work, he withdrew six legal opinions issued during the Trump administration by his Republican predecessor, Daniel Jorjani. Jorjani, for example, had issued an opinion that the Migratory Birds Treaty Act did not cover the accidental or accidental killing of birds. Anderson reversed that position, launching a new review of the law that will be closely watched by industry and environmentalists.

It cost him the support of the GOP.

“Mr. Anderson … paved the way for the policies of the Biden administration that conflict with the department’s multiple-use mandate,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) In late May, before the first vote of ‘Anderson. “Mr. Anderson’s actions have demonstrated that he may not be fully constrained by the laws as Congress has drafted them.”

Jorjani, however, told E&E News that he supports Anderson’s nomination.

“While I do not agree with the legal and political interpretations of the current administration which sometimes conflict with the varied missions of the Home Office, I think Robert Anderson will make an excellent lawyer,” said Jorjani.

Jorjani cited Anderson’s “decades of experience in Native American and public land law” as well as “significant prior experience in the service of the department.”

“He has also proven himself throughout his career to conduct himself at all times with integrity and professionalism,” he said.


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