Member Profile – Lawrence Baca

Lawrence R. Baca (Pawnee) is currently National Treasurer of the National Native American Bar Association. In 1976, he was the first American Indian lawyer ever hired at the United States Department of Justice through the Attorney General’s Honor Law Program. He was also the first American Indian attorney ever hired into the Civil Rights Division. In CRD, he served in the Office of Indian Rights, the General Litigation Section, the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section, and the Educational Opportunities Litigation Section. He ended his 32-year career with four years service as a Deputy Director of the Office of Tribal Justice. Lawrence formed the American Indian Lawyers Association of the Department of Justice in 1978 and was its Chairman for 30 years. At the time of his retirement in 2008, he was the longest-tenured American Indian Attorney in the history of the Department.

Lawrence graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1973 with a degree in “American Indian History and Culture.” It was a one-of-a-kind-major developed through the university’s Individual Major Program. In 1976, he was the 8th American Indian to graduate from Harvard Law School.

Lawrence has been a member of the National Native American Bar Association since 1978. He has served in every position on the Board of Directors, including three terms as President. He has served on the Board for 25 of the past 35 years, including his current four-year appointment as Treasurer. As a member of the Federal Bar Association, Lawrence established the Indian Law Section, where he was Chair for 20 years. He then served on the FBA National Board of Directors for eight years, including being National President in 2009-10. He was the first American Indian president of any national non-Native bar association. In 2008, the Indian Law Section established the Lawrence R. Baca Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Federal Indian law. He was its first recipient. As a member of the American Bar Association, Lawrence served on the Committee on Problems of the American Indian, the ABA Task Force on Race, the Commission on Racial Justice, and the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Minorities in the Profession. He served three terms as Chair of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Minorities in the Profession. He was the first American Indian to chair any commission of the ABA.

Lawrence is a member of the Bar Association of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Lawrence and his wife of 42 years, JoAnn, have retired to San Diego, California, where they grew up. They have three nieces and one nephew there – no children, no pets.

Q&A With Lawrence R. Baca:

1.       Where are you from?

I was born in Montrose, Colorado, in 1950. My family moved to San Diego, California, in 1953. That’s where I grew up; officially, I am a “beach Indian.” I did all of my youthful powwowing at Barona, Rincon and Sycuan, reservations here in San Diego County.

2. How did you decide to become a lawyer? Did you always want to practice Indian law and/or work for a tribe? Why or why not?

There are 17 Indian reservations in San Diego County. In the 1950s and ‘60s, many communities in the area had signs in restaurants, movie houses, bars and parks that said “No Indians Allowed.” There were also places, though without signs, notorious for not serving Indians. Our family was not allowed in those places. In Colorado, my father had been assaulted and stabbed 27 times for walking into a “Whites Only” bar when he was 22 years old, so we took the signs pretty seriously. My father took the scars from his assault to his grave; I took them to law school.

I went to law school to go to work for the California Indian Legal Services. I clerked there after my second year of law school. When they didn’t offer me a job at the end of the summer, I panicked and started sending applications to other public interest and government offices like NARF and the DOJ. Ultimately I was offered a Reginald Heber Smith Fellowship to work at CILS, but I’d already accepted the position at DOJ. The rest is, as they say, history.

The only thing that would have changed any of that is that, if I could sing and pick guitar, I’d probably have gone to Nashville instead of Harvard.

3.  To date, what do you think is your most notable accomplishment – either legal or personal?

Four things stand above others:

1. I helped change the face of the United States Department of Justice. I was the first American Indian ever hired through the Attorney General’s Honor Law Program. I was also the first American Indian lawyer ever hired in the Civil Rights Division. I began recruiting other Indian lawyers and law students to apply to the Department. As more Indian lawyers came to DOJ, they too began recruiting. During the Clinton administration, there were 19 Native attorneys in Main Justice and probably another dozen AUSAs. I don’t claim that I recruited every Indian lawyer who came to DOJ, but the ones I didn’t recruit were probably recruited by someone that I did recruit. Before me, there was no outreach program at all for American Indians in the Department’s EEO program. There is now.

2. I put my finger in the Cyclops’s eye, as deep as necessary and as often as necessary.

In 1982, a Potawatomi woman was hired at the Civil Rights Division. She had requested and was assigned to the unit where I worked. When my Section Chief found out that she was an Indian, he asked for her to be transferred, saying to me, “It is inappropriate that the only two Indians in the Division work in the same unit.” As a new attorney, she was essentially powerless to take action. I was a tenured Grade 14; I was not without voice. I complained by memorandum to the Assistant Attorney General that two American Indian lawyers had been denied the right to work together on account of race and that the CRD Administrative Office had cooperated. With apologies to Mr. Shakespeare, “Hell hath no fury like a civil right division accused.” I was never told that I was wrong, that discrimination had not occurred. I was, however, “informed,” in many ways, that I shouldn’t have complained and that I shouldn’t have put it in writing. My career paid a price. I would do it again to prevent that indignity from being visited on another Indian lawyer.

3. As Chair of the Indian Trial Lawyers Association of DOJ, I led a group of lawyers who challenged Attorney General Janet Reno to get coordinating control of Indian law issues throughout the Department. Our first memorandum to her made a recommendation of creating a unit reporting directly to the attorney general that looks a lot like the Office of Tribal Justice that she ultimately created. We won’t claim credit for what she did; we just take credit for pointing out to her that it needed doing.

4. The Civil Rights Division had a record of not filing cases on behalf of American Indians between 1957, when it was created, and 1973, when the Office of Indian Rights was created. In 1980, that office was disbanded by the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. Enforcement of the civil rights laws on behalf of American Indians almost returned to its previous oblivion. Between 1980 and 1990, I was singularly responsible for filing 75% of all of the cases filed by the Civil Rights Division on behalf of American Indian victims. During this time, I was told by a deputy section chief that I did “too much work with Indians,” despite the fact that my Indian victim cases were only 10% of my docket. (No African American or White attorney had ever been told they filed too many cases on behalf of Black victims.) I was warned by the section chief that my work in Indian country would not be given the same weight by the promotions committee as work with “other” victim classes. Although my promotion to Grade 15 was a year behind the normal schedule – I was passed over twice – I wouldn’t change the path I took. Many of the cases that I filed involving voting rights, education, and equal credit opportunity were ground breaking for American Indians. The reverberations of my case United States v. GMAC altered the lending landscape for American Indians. The opinion in Sinajini and the United States v. San Juan County School District was the first time any federal district court had ruled that Indian students who live on reservations have a right to equal educational opportunities under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. The private attorney called it “the Brown v. Board of Education for Indians.” When I retired, I was presented with the Attorney General’s Medallion, the highest award that the Attorney General can present to a retiring employee. At the retirement ceremony, the AAG for Civil Rights said I’d worked on more cases involving the civil rights of Indians than any other attorney in the history of the Division. Ultimately, I was lauded for work I’d previously been criticized for doing. I was also the first American Indian to ever receive the Attorney General’s Medallion.

4.  Is there anything in your career that you have not yet accomplished that you have set as a goal for yourself? If so, what is that? If not, do you plan to retire at some point or try another career?

I am retired. Retired, retired. I didn’t retire to consult for money. That’s just continuing to work but changing employers. I refuse to be one of those guys who says to tribes, “I worked in the Office of Tribal Justice; for a thousand dollars a day plus expenses I can introduce you to the important people at DOJ.” No, I just call the Director of OTJ and encourage him to accept their call, no charge. I have consulted pro bono on a couple of cases involving civil rights issues. After 32 years of civil rights enforcement, you have a duty to help others with the expertise that you developed.

There is always unfinished business. There is a great need for more Native students to go to law school. So I speak at colleges and universities. There is a great need for Native attorneys. So I mentor at local law schools. There is a great need for American Indian judges in the federal system. That is why I continue to be bar active.

5.  Why did you join NNABA? What would you like to see the organization do or accomplish in the near and/or distant future.

I joined NNABA to have the opportunity to be around and get to know other Native American lawyers. There had been one other Native student in my class at Harvard, but he was very much out for Number One and I didn’t see him making long-term contributions to the development of federal Indian law. NNABA has done more in the past 10 years than in the 30 before that. The new younger leadership we have is making great strides. The White House now knows that we exist when it thinks of judicial appointments. I wish more Indian lawyers would join NNABA. There is greater strength in greater numbers.

6. Do you have any advice for new lawyers? If so, what is it?

Don’t try to pass yourself off as someone you are not.

Someone wrote that you should learn from other people’s mistakes because you won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.

Follow footprints; make footprints for others to follow.