Courtesy Erin Oban
Tim Purdon, center, and Brendan Johnson, right, observe Grand Entry at the United Tribes Technical College Powwow in Bismarck, North Dakota in September 2011.

Former US Attorneys Discuss Private Practice Jump, and Improving on Native Relationships

Kristi Eaton

Brendan Johnson and Timothy Purdon made it their mission while serving as U.S. attorneys for South Dakota and North Dakota, respectively, to work with American Indian tribes and improve public safety on some of the country's largest Indian reservations.

Johnson, who served as the U.S. attorney in South Dakota from 2009 to 2015, is credited with designing a community prosecution strategy that helped increase prosecutions in Indian country by 90 percent. Purdon, who served from 2010 to 2015, meanwhile, designed an anti-violence strategy on North Dakota's reservations that helped increase prosecutions district-wide by 80 percent.

Now, the two lawyers are heading to private practice with the Minneapolis-based Robins Kaplan. Johnson has opened an office in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, while Purdon is opening an office in Bismarck, North Dakota. They say they plan to continue their efforts working closely with tribal communities.

Below is part one of an interview with ICTMN where they discuss the decision to transition to private practice and areas to improve on with government-to-government relationships.

RELATED: Two Former US Attorneys Join Robins Kaplan LLP

Being a U.S. attorney seems like a really prestigious position. Why did you decide to go to private practice?

Johnson: Serving as U.S. Attorney was a great honor, and I am immensely proud of what the Justice Department has accomplished in Indian country during the Obama administration. We worked with, not against, tribes to promote tribal sovereignty. In South Dakota, I was particularly proud that we stood with the tribes on issues including the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), [Indian Child Welfare Act] ICWA, voting rights, and preventing the disestablishment of the Yankton Sioux Reservation. But there are more fights that need to be fought on behalf of tribal sovereignty. There is a need for strong attorneys in private practice who will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with tribes across the country. That’s what Tim and I intend to do in private practice.

Purdon: When you become U.S. Attorney, you serve as a nominee of the President of the United States and so you know that the job is not going to be forever. When I started I set several goals for myself and the Office, the most important of which was reshaping the way the North Dakota U.S. Attorney’s Office contributes to the public safety of the reservations that we serve. We did this through the adoption of our Anti-Violence Strategy for Reservation Communities (AVS) which we put into place in 2011. While the initial implementation of the AVS certainly has not solved these issues on the reservations in North Dakota, we have made real, measurable progress during my term. Given this, I felt that the time was right for me to take the next step in my career by joining Robins Kaplan with Brendan to continue our service to the people of Indian country by building an incisive, relentless team to help tribes deal with their most complex problems and disputes.

What did you learn during your time as a U.S. attorney and how will that help you as you transition back to private practice?

Johnson: Tim and I learned that the odds are often stacked against the tribes. Local governments and major corporations can afford to hire some of the best attorneys in the country to advocate against the interests of tribes. We want to rewrite those odds.

Purdon: I learned a great deal about how the Department of Justice and other agencies like the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs work. I have a much greater understanding of how policies and personalities drive hard decisions in Washington than I did before. It is my belief that I am going to be able to leverage this understanding of how the federal government works in Indian country on behalf of tribes and tribal entities.

What will you be doing in your new role?

Johnson: Robins Kaplan has a long history of taking on high-stakes litigation, often on the side that others might consider to be an “under-dog.” This includes successful litigation against big tobacco and pharmaceutical companies. Tim and I felt that this firm had the right values, as well as the assets and experience already in place, to assist tribes, and that’s what we want to do in private practice.

Purdon: Brendan and I now have a long history of managing complex criminal investigations and high stakes civil litigation from both the defense and plaintiff counsel’s table. This experience uniquely positions us to rewrite the odds for tribes and tribal entities that are caught up in complex disputes with powerful outside forces.

You worked a lot with Native American tribes as a U.S. attorney. In your opinion, how important is it for the federal government to work with American Indian tribes? How can that relationship improve?

Johnson: The federal government needs to appreciate that the best ideas for strengthening tribal communities don’t come out of Washington D.C., they come directly from the tribes. I think the Obama Administration has done great work in Indian country, but we need to make sure that those changes are sustainable and not reversed by the next administration. Tim and I intend to be watchdogs in private practice to make sure that progress is not halted.

Purdon: I believe that when the history of Attorney General Eric Holder’s Department of Justice is written that one of its biggest achievements will be the prioritizing of public safety in Indian country as a top-tier priority, the deployment of additional DOJ talent and resources to address that issue, and the measurable results of that effort. From the passage of TLOA and the re-authorization of VAWA with the restored tribal court domestic violence jurisdiction to the marked increase in the number of Indian country violent crime cases brought by U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country; from the important work of DOJ’s Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence to the unprecedented levels of communication, cooperation, and collaboration between U.S. Attorney’s Offices and the tribes they serve, the initial progress that Brendan and I helped lead has been historic. I agree that what is important now is that these gains remain in place; that DOJ’s commitment to Indian country public safety remain the norm, the regular way of doing business.

ICTMN will publish part two of this interview later this week.

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