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From land theft to child removal to cultural genocide, the horrors and harms of federal Indian law have been well-documented. In his recent article, Professor Crepelle acknowledges this history and literature and asks: “Is it ethical to cite cases that are factually wrong and racist?” (P. 533.) He concludes that federal Indian law practice is “incompatible with modern standards of legal ethics.” (P. 532.) I couldn’t agree more.

Professor Crepelle identifies cases that rely on racial slurs, inaccurate stereotypes, and white supremacist language to reach legal conclusions that undermine Tribal jurisdiction or Indigenous rights. These cases—the Marshall trilogy, US v. Rogers, Ex Parte Crow Dog, US v. Kagama, among others—are regularly relied upon in modern federal Indian law practice.

Professor Crepelle analyzes how the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC) could be applied to lawyers who cite racist federal Indian law cases or judges who rely on them. For example, the MRPC requires claims to be based in law and fact (r. 3.1); prohibits the use of false statements or inaccurate information (r. 3.3, r. 4.1, r. 8.4(c)); and bars conduct that discriminates based on race, sex, or national origin (r. 8.4(d)).

These ethical rules, Professor Crepelle explains, were not applicable to the attorneys and judges when they participated in the cases discussed above. But they do apply to the lawyers that rely on them today. (P. 541.) He argues that when these cases are cited in modern practice (and they are a lot, Professor Crepelle counted!), attorneys and judges are obligated to acknowledge the faulty reasoning and white supremacy ideology that supported the decisions when relied upon today. He states “Presumably, few lawyers in the contemporary United States would dare to openly argue [T]ribal sovereignty needs to be curtailed because Indians are racially inferior to whites . . . unapologetically racist reasoning should render them impermissible under the ABA’s MRPC.” (P. 568.) I wish it were so. And, I wish case law was the only problem.

There are many racist statutes and regulations on the books today that are also products of white supremacy (looking at you, Major Crimes Act and Tribal recognition regulations). The modern-day practice of federal Indian law also includes lawyers and judges that routinely question the existence, capability, and cultures of Tribal nations. The Goldwater Institute, a nonprofit organization that has taken a leading role in the challenging the Indian Child Welfare Act in state and federal courts, relies on arguments that Tribes should not be treated as distinct political groups.

In his book, In the Courts of the Conqueror, Judge Walter R. Echo Hawk reminds us that “Only rarely in US history has the law served as a shield to protect Native Americans from abuse and to further their aspirations as [I]ndigenous peoples.” (P. 4.) Therein lies the rub. Most of federal Indian law is racist. What is left if we take out all the racist bits?

Fortunately, brilliant Tribal advocates, attorneys, and scholars have considered various options for reform. Echo-Hawk, in the final chapter of In the Courts of the Conqueror, offers a framework for “reforming the dark side of federal Indian law” which includes reforming federal law to meet the thresholds established by the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; overturning decisions like Johnson v. M’Intosh; and protecting Indigenous habitat. Professor Angelique Townsend EagleWomen has suggested a return to treaty-making between Tribes and the United States could bring more balance to Tribal authority in federal Indian law.

Through his article, Professor Crepelle adds rules of professional responsibility as another tool to use to chip away the racist foundations and practice of federal Indian law. It is a welcome one. We need all the tools we can get.

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Cite as: Aila Hoss, Federal Indian Law is Racist, JOTWELL (January 24, 2022) (reviewing Adam Crepelle, Lies, Damn Lies, And Federal Indian Law: The Ethics of Citing Racist Precedent in Contemporary Federal Indian Law, 44 N.Y.U. Rev. of L. & Soc. Change 529 (2021)),