FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Two former U.S. attorneys from the Dakotas who built their brief federal careers around American Indian issues are putting their experience to work at a private legal firm.
Timothy Purdon of North Dakota and Brendan Johnson of South Dakota both stepped down in March after spending much of their five-plus years as top federal prosecutors tackling crime on tribal lands. Now part of the Minneapolis-based Robbins Kaplan law firm, they’re looking to represent tribes around the country on a variety of issues — from gaming rights disputes to commercial ventures and tribal boundaries to natural resources.
“Often times the odds are stacked against them, frankly,” Johnson said. “We felt like there was a real need for a firm that could go out and represent the tribes and really rewrite those odds.”
Purdon, 46, a native of Oakes, North Dakota, and Johnson, a 39-year-old native of Vermillion, South Dakota, were leaders in the Obama administration’s Native American safety initiative and decided they wanted to further that effort in the private sector. They used the same headhunter — Jane Roberts, wife of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts — to find a job.
Purdon said many tribes are working to expand their sovereign rights, which comes with an assortment of legal problems.
“There’s an opportunity for us because tribes are going to continue to get into more and more complex disputes as time goes by,” Purdon said. “That’s a result of self-determination. That all has to be sorted out.”
Figuring out the authority among tribal and non-tribal governments is tricky work, according to Bill Zuger, who retired in 2012 after nearly seven years as the tribal judge on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation that straddles the North Dakota and South Dakota border.
“It is a mess. It is so complicated,” Zuger said. “The problem is, the courts are handling it on a case-by-case basis. Nobody really understands what’s going on jurisdictionally, and I think that’s where Tim and Brendan ought to do real well.”
Purdon is already representing Alexander White Plume, an Oglala Sioux tribal member who has been trying to grow industrial hemp on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Recent Department of Justice policy changes in response to states that have legalized marijuana is expected to open the door for industrial hemp, especially on tribal lands.
Although some tribes are doing well financially, including those buoyed by oil and, to a lesser extent, other energy production such as coal, wind and solar, the two men acknowledge others live in some of the poorest areas of the country.
“I told the tribes that they can always call me and I will give them my best advice,” Johnson said. “Sometimes it’s going to be, look, you can get this legal work done for a lower cost and you can get it done really well. But there are circumstances for tribes that they need a national law firm and they can benefit from the national presence that our firm has.”
Purdon said that while he and Johnson have a lot of options in their new jobs, they want to stay connected to the tribes and build on their work in the federal sector to help make life safer on the reservation.
“You don’t give up part of your life for a cause like that and not be affected by it,” Purdon said. “That might sound corny, but that is what’s driving us.”
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