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Home / Bar Buzz / Pipeline protests, North Dakota’s lawyer shortage, and Bill Tilton’s solution

Pipeline protests, North Dakota’s lawyer shortage, and Bill Tilton’s solution

A few months ago, Bill Tilton, the founding partner the St. Paul law firm of Tilton & Dunn, got a call from Winona LaDuke, the prominent Ojibwe environmental activist from northern Minnesota’s White Earth reservation and a former running mate to Ralph Nader during the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections.

LaDuke told Tilton that he should represent a man named Charlie Thayer, who had gotten himself arrested while protesting the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline project. Around the same time, a friend from Bemidji independently contacted Tilton with the exact same message.

“So, I think OK, I gotta represent Charlie,” said Tilton, who described Thayer – a White Earth enrollee, musician, environmentalist, and a Bush Foundation fellow — as “a sort of Renaissance man.”

That’s not a bad description of Tilton, either.

Tilton’s long history of activism and civic involvement dates back to the Vietnam War when, as one of the so-called “Minnesota 8,” he did a 20-month stint in federal prison for trying to destroy draft board records. After that, he went to law school, became the first convicted felon to be admitted to the state bar, and hung up a shingle in St. Paul, where he has since specialized in medical malpractice and personal injury law.

After agreeing to represent Thayer, Tilton wound up taking on more pipeline protestors as clients, travelling to North Dakota four times over the course of the fall. Mainly, he explained, that’s because the local defense bar has been utterly overwhelmed by the volume of arrests at the ongoing protest.

To help alleviate the stress on the court system, Tilton figured it would make sense to get himself admitted to the North Dakota bar. As it turns out, that proved to be an unexpectedly onerous undertaking.

Along with incurring $1,000 in assorted fees, Tilton estimates he spent about 24 hours filling out his application, which ran 78 pages in length and required that he exhume some “arcane” details of long ago events in his life, including his arrest for hitchhiking and pot possession in Dinwiddie, Virginia in 1971.

Although Tilton was granted a temporary North Dakota law license back in October, he learned earlier this month that his application for full admittance to the bar remained incomplete. Among the hold ups: he had not been able to satisfactorily document which month in 1985 he started out as a conciliation court referee in Ramsey County – information that Tilton says neither he nor Ramsey County currently possess.

Tilton was also informed by letter that a failure to provide a timely response to the outstanding issues on his application could delay approval by as much as six months.

In contrast to that process, the admission to the federal bar in North Dakota is a cakewalk. According to Tilton, it took him less than a half hour to complete the application, which was approved within a matter of days.

Frustrated, Tilton decided to switch course and drafted a petition to the North Dakota Supreme Court, asking the court to relax its rules on an emergency basis and adopt the federal model for admission. In Tilton’s view, such steps are necessary to ensure all 500-odd individuals who’ve been arrested in the course of pipeline protest are properly represented.

He’s not alone in that belief. Co-signers to the petition include Tim Purdon, the former U.S. Attorney for North Dakota and now a partner at Robins Kaplan, Bruce Nestor, a Minneapolis criminal defense lawyer and past president of the National Lawyers Guild, and six North Dakota attorneys.

According to the petition, the most pressing problem is the relatively tiny number of criminal defense lawyers who are licensed to practice in North Dakota. The North Dakota Criminal Defense Lawyers Association has just 70 members, Tilton noted, and some of those can’t or won’t take on pipeline clients for reasons that range from conflicts of interest to a general disdain for the protests.

While Tilton said he couldn’t predict how the North Dakota Supreme Court will act on the petition, he expressed optimism that the court would see some value in greasing the skids for out-state lawyers.

“North Dakota went for Trump by 20 points and the Anglo community is not very sympathetic to the pipeline protestors,” Tilton noted. “But North Dakota also has a very strong tradition of respecting the rights of the accused.”

He also pointed out there are practical (and entirely non-political) reasons for the court to grant the petition.

“Otherwise, they’ll wind up with over 200 pro se defendants, which is not something any judge typically likes because pro se cases take longer to try and create more issues for appeal,” he said. “So I think the courts, for their own sanity, will want some more professionals in there.”

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