Lawyer who won landmark Alaska subsistence case in line to be Interior’s top attorney

man in suit in front of bookcase
Robert T. Anderson is the acting Interior Department solicitor. (Photo: University of Washington)

A pioneering advocate of Alaska tribal sovereignty will have an important job at the U.S. Interior Department, assuming the Senate confirms him.

Robert T. Anderson, who represented Athabaskan elder Katie John in a landmark subsistence fishing case, is President Biden’s pick to be the solicitor of Interior.

Anderson, a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe, began his legal career at the Native American Rights Fund.

“In 1984, I moved to Anchorage Alaska as one of two attorney who opened an office for that law firm (NARF) to work on matters related to tribal status, tribal jurisdiction, hunting and fishing rights, and amendments to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that were important to protection of the Native corporation land base in Alaska,” Anderson said Tuesday at his Senate confirmation hearing.

When Anderson opened the NARF office in Anchorage, the federal government had not yet recognized more than 200 Alaska Native villages as self-governing tribes. It was a controversial idea. Many Alaskans thought ANCSA precluded tribal sovereignty. Anderson advocated for that recognition, and was a key player in getting the Clinton administration in 1993 to issue a list and a statement that says Alaska tribes have the same status as those in the Lower 48.

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Anderson faced largely friendly questioning at the hearing. He taught at the University of Washington law school for 20 years and has been the acting solicitor for four months.

The Interior solicitor’s job is to interpret federal law for the department. Solicitor opinions sometimes stand as legal pillars for years. But Anderson has already withdrawn six opinions written by President Trump’s Interior solicitor. Anderson told senators it had to be done.

“When there is a solicitor’s opinion, written by a predecessor, whether he or she is a Democrat or a Republican, they need to be reversed when they’re plainly inconsistent with existing law,” he said.

Other opinions need to be tossed, he said, when they are intended to facilitate a policy that’s been rescinded.

Among the opinions Anderson has thrown out was one signed on the last day of the Trump presidency. It said the Interior secretary could not hold Alaska tribal land in trust. Some Alaska tribes want that legal status for parcels they own. It would make the land “Indian country” and immune from state and local taxation.

Anderson’s opinion calls for the Interior Department to resume processing land-in-trust applications from Alaska tribes, after a consultation period.

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