PORTLAND, Ore. - When regular folks donate their services it's called
"volunteer work" or, if they happen to be students, "apprenticing." The
world of law has its own vernacular that sets up barriers between those in
the know and those who aren't. So when attorneys or law students give their
time away for free, the profession labels it "pro bono" - a Latin term for
Whatever the word - pro bono, free, volunteer, apprenticing - the bottom
line is that all tribal judges have to do to get a hand is pick up the
phone to get the assistance of a law clerk for a particular case.
There's a raft of second- and third-year law students at Lewis & Clark Law
School cued up in precisely that pro bono line: eager, energetic students
just waiting to tackle research on law questions and the legal particulars
needed to write first drafts of legal opinions for tribal court judges.
They have a state-of-the-art legal library at their disposal and are
trained in the confidentiality that working on legal matters requires.
Only three tribes have used the program so far. But Robert Miller -
citizen, as he likes to put it, of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma,
associate professor at Lewis & Clark Law School and chief justice of the
Grand Ronde Tribal Court of Appeals - hopes that will change as word gets
"Even at Grand Ronde, where the tribe benefits from casino money and we
have a well-appointed chamber with microphones in which to hold court,"
Miller said, "there is no law library.
"Many tribes make do with considerably less comfortable appointments than
the Grand Ronde. Sometimes court might be held in a Quonset hut with just
the judge and maybe a secretary.
"That's what a lot of tribal courts are: one or two people and certainly no
one trained to be a clerk. I have even held court on folding chairs at a
makeshift table. We're talking about rural areas here, where access to
computers is marginal and generally judges don't have the resources to
The pilot program started last summer, grafted onto an already successful
law clerk pro bono program the law school has run for non-tribal courts
over the past four years. Between his first-hand experience with the
difficulties of judicial work in Indian country, his own clerkship work as
a law student and his knowledge of a Stanford University program where
students clerked for the Hopi tribal courts, Miller didn't have to reach
far for the idea. And with six years as associate professor under his belt
at Lewis & Clark, he had the clout to get the new program off the ground.
"One of the biggest problems for tribal courts is the lack of research
assistants. The judge in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that I worked for
right after graduation has one secretary and four law clerks," Miller said.
"That kind of help makes a huge difference in a judge's ability to hand
down well-reasoned decisions in a timely manner."
It's not news that Indian country is short of resources and understaffed.
It's also not news that Indian country is conservative about change - when
it comes to outsiders.
Miller appreciates these dynamics. "I think one of the reasons the response
rate has been slow to rise is that judges don't know our students directly
and hence wonder if they can really trust someone that they just speak to
over the telephone," Miller said. "I can't emphasize enough, though, that
Lewis & Clark Law School is highly regarded and that the second- and
third-year students in the Tribal Court Clerkship Program understand
confidentiality and are capable of conducting themselves as professionals."
It's professional assistance, it's pro bono, and it's a well-thought out
program with the needs of Indian country in mind. All that's needed to make
a marriage is for tribal judges who have some research they'd like to get
done on a case to come forward.