Republican Lawyer to Lead NCAI Legal Team

Rob Capriccioso


There’s a new legal boss at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), and he’s one with strong Republican ties—a shift for an organization that has sometimes seemed, at least on the surface, more outwardly and broadly connected to Democrats.

David Mullon, a Cherokee Nation citizen, was recently named the new chief counsel of NCAI. He started the job on October 31 after leaving his position as minority staff director and chief counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs the day before.

RELATED: SCIA Minority Staff Director Leaving Senate for NCAI

Mullon had served under Republicans on the committee since 2003, working under Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), John McCain (R-Arizona), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming), and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado).

Under McCain, Mullon helped negotiate a Cobell settlement figure that was several billion dollars larger than the $3.4 billion the Obama administration ultimately offered and was accepted by the American Indian plaintiffs involved with the case. Cobell lawyers rejected the higher figure in the mid-2000s, saying it wasn’t a serious offer, and they later accepted the lower offer from the Obama administration that included a $1.4 billion set aside for the Interior Department to try to buy back fractionated land interests from individual Indians. In 2005, the Office of Management and Budget had issued an estimate of $11 billion needed to resolve the fractionation issue, which was another reason Mullon and other Senate Indian-focused insiders had been pushing for a larger Cobell settlement if it was to include the fractionation issue.

Beyond Cobell negotiations, Mullon played a role in most other major Indian legislation over the last decade, much of which was bipartisan in nature.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle have appreciated his service.

“David has spent a majority of his life and career working to serve the needs of Native Americans,” said Barrasso, the vice-chair of SCIA and Mullon’s most recent boss before he joined NCAI, in a statement. “With his extensive tribal law background and over ten years of leadership on the Committee, David has personally and positively impacted the lives of so many people throughout Indian country. In the Senate, we’ll certainly miss David’s wise counsel and good friendship.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), current chair of SCIA, also weighed in with good wishes. “We are fortunate to have a bipartisan environment on this Committee as we work together to find ways to improve the lives of Native Americans,” she said in a statement. “David’s leadership and comprehensive understanding of the issues will be missed. He worked closely with leadership from both parties on a number of important issues for Indian country including health care, energy, self-governance and sovereignty.”

Despite his bipartisan work on many Indian issues, Mullon has sometimes irked Democratic colleagues who have had political differences with him, and even some tribal leaders have called him out, such as last February at a gathering of the United South and Eastern Tribes where President Brian Patterson name-checked Mullon for not attending despite an invitation.

After the October 30 announcement of Mullon’s move to NCAI, some Indian-focused lawyers and lobbyists wondered what was to become of John Dossett, the current general counsel at NCAI, under this new arrangement. Dossett has been with the organization since 1997.

Dossett was quick to make clear that he’s going nowhere, saying via e-mail that he would be staying at the organization “[a]s long as I’m wanted.”

Friends of both legal eagles say they get along very well, so there doesn’t seem to be any reason that internal politicking will get in the way of them pursuing strong legal strategies on behalf of the hundreds of tribes NCAI includes.

“There's a lot of critically important work to be done, and NCAI's vital mission will certainly keep both of these superb attorneys very busy,” said Philip Baker-Shenk, an Indian affairs lawyer with Holland & Knight.

Paul Moorhead, an Indian affairs lawyer with Drinker Biddle, added that Mullon and Dossett get along “very well.” The Drinker Biddle firm, which represents several tribal clients and has been leading the anti-Redskins trademark strategy for many years, is scheduled to hold a reception in Mullon’s honor today, November 4.

Before joining the Senate, Mullon was a lawyer for both the Cherokee Nation and the Muscogee Nation.