Trailblazing Seminole lawyer wins prestigious award

Jim Shore accepts the Government Attorney of the Year Award for 2020 from the American Bar Association Section on Environment, Energy and Resources. (Screengrab from awards ceremony)

Sandra Hale Schulman

Jim Shore has worked to preserve Florida’s natural resources and protect water rights critical to his tribe's future

Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

Jim Shore has accomplished more than one first in his lifetime.

After a car accident left him blind in 1970, he went on to graduate from Stetson University, and its College of Law, and became the first member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida to practice law.

Recently, he became the first Native attorney to receive a national award from the American Bar Association.

“I am humbled to be chosen,” Shore said in accepting the prestigious Environment, Energy and Resources "Government Attorney of the Year Award" for 2020. “The Seminole Tribe of Florida has a proud group of Indians who have never backed away from a fight to preserve our sovereignty and protect the rights of our tribal members.”

The award recognizes exceptional achievement by federal, state, tribal or local government attorneys – a broad category. Recipients are deemed to have made significant accomplishments or demonstrated recognized leadership in the environment, energy and natural resources legal areas. 

It was presented to Shore at a virtual fall conference.

Shore has served as the Seminole Tribe’s general counsel since the 1980s. During this time, he has worked to preserve Florida’s natural resources and protect water rights critical to the future of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the fragile lands it inhabits. 

His ongoing focus includes the impact of Everglades restoration and Lake Okeechobee water management on the Brighton and Big Cypress Seminole reservations, which take up over 90,000 acres across the state.

Shore was raised on the Brighton Seminole Reservation. He and his two brothers and four sisters grew up in the woods, where the family raised cattle.

They lived under traditional Seminole chickees made of cypress logs with thatched palmetto fronds for roofs. There was no indoor plumbing, no television and few roads, but he managed to graduate from Okeechobee High School in 1963 and go on to complete law school.

He was named deputy general counsel of the Seminole Tribe in 1981, and general counsel in 1982. He is a member of the Florida Bar and the U.S. Supreme Court Bar, which earns him the right to argue cases before the high court.

In a video introduction for the awards ceremony, attorney Michelle Diffenderfer, president of the Florida firm Lewis, Longman & Walker, cited Shore’s “incredible listening skills and a penchant for knowing just what to do at the right time.” Diffenderfer has represented the Seminole Tribe on environmental issues and is a lawyer who has worked closely with Shore for decades.

“When you Google Jim Shore, you will find all the accomplishments that the tribe has achieved over the years, and Jim right there alongside the tribe’s leaders, helping guide decisions, listening to leadership and doing the due diligence to ensure that the tribe made great choices,” Diffenderfer said at the ceremony.

One of Shore’s early accomplishments in the environmental arena, she said, was the negotiation and approval of the tribe’s water rights compact with the state of Florida in 1987.

“Today, it is still the only water rights compact with an Indian tribe east of the Mississippi River,” Diffenderfer said.

The compact lets the tribe quantify water rights, usage and drainage, Shore explained.

“The value of these rights is it allows the tribe to participate in the state’s permitting system off the reservation, with a mechanism in place that allows both the state and the tribe to be able to work things out without impacting one or the other’s resources,” he said.

Shore has also been involved in negotiating the tribe’s mega-successful gaming operations, including fantasy sports. They have kept many gaming divisions exclusively, in deals that pay hundreds of millions to the state.

“The tribe will never agree to anything that allows other counties to have Class III gaming, like slot machines and these so-called designated player games, and they will never agree to anything that infringes upon their exclusivity,” he said.

Presented in late October as part of the section’s fall conference, the 2020 awards of the American Bar Association Section on Environment, Energy and Resources were held virtually due to concerns over COVID-19. 

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Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, The Grammy Museum, The Queens Museum, and has produced three films on Native musicians.

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