In 2001, the Tribe and its long-time general counsel, Maynes, Bradford, Shipps, & Sheftel, agreed to work together to establish an in-house tribal legal department. The idea was for the Tribe to have its own in-house attorneys who would be easily accessible to tribal staff and Tribal Council and who would handle the Tribe’s day-to-day legal work. The department would be staffed by attorneys who had successfully completed a tribal attorney-training program, which would involve two years of training and mentoring with the attorneys at the law firm. Four years later, the Tribe’s Legal Department was born, and since then it has been staffed with graduates of the training program, which is believed to be the only one of its kind in the country.
This month the Legal Department will gain a new attorney when Anthony Maestas transitions from the In-House Attorney Training Program to become a full-time employee and member of the Tribe’s in-house legal team. Anthony is originally from South Dakota, and is an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate. Anthony served three years in the United States Navy as a Petty Officer Third Class (SK3), where he spent three years onboard the USS Ponce (LPD-15) as a logistics specialist. He received his undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Minnesota-Morris and received his law degree from the University of Arizona in 2012. Before moving to Bayfield to represent the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Anthony worked as an attorney at DNA – People’s Legal Services in Farmington, New Mexico, as the Public Defender for Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate in Agency Village, South Dakota, and as a Public Defender in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Entry into the training program is extremely competitive. The last time the program was open to applicants, over 60 attorneys from around the country applied. Applicants are selected by Tribal Council and the law firm after an intensive interview process. Once hired, the tribal attorney trainees work closely with the firm and the Legal Department for 15-24 months, alternating each week between offices in Ignacio and Durango. Each trainee completes a series of training “tracks” that include work with Tribal Council, Growth Fund, Casino, and the Permanent Fund departments. These tracks involve attending meetings, researching legal issues, handling legal services requests, and assisting the firm and Legal Department attorneys in representing the Tribe in litigation.
With the addition of Anthony, the Tribe’s Legal Department will have three full time attorneys, and will be joined by a fourth when the newest trainee, Julianne Begay, comes in-house. With the addition of Anthony and Julianne, the Tribe can say that three of its four tribal attorneys are Native American.
Chairman Frost is proud of the program.
“We’re strengthening our sovereignty by building our own Legal Department for our own people. This model is one that could benefit other tribes, as it allows us to foster long-lasting and productive relationships with our attorneys who are specifically trained to represent our tribe. Tribal Councils past can be pleased that their vision for an in-house Legal Department is being realized, and that we now have a Legal Department that is majority Native American.”