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Colette Routel
Colette Routel

Breaking the Ice: Professor’s brief cited in tribal sovereignty case

Name: Colette Routel

Title: Professor of law, co-director, Indian Law Program, Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Education: B.M., music, Ithaca College; J.D., University of Michigan Law School

For Mitchell Hamline School of Law professor Colette Routel, having the U.S. Supreme Court cite an amicus brief she co-wrote in its landmark McGirt v. Oklahoma opinion was “not nearly as big as this great victory” for tribal sovereignty.

Routel, co-director of Mitchell Hamline’s Indian Law Program, got assistance with the brief from students in the school’s Indian Law Impact Litigation Clinic, which she launched. Routel wrote the brief on behalf of the National Congress of American Indians with a professor from another university.

Justice Neil Gorsuch’s majority opinion affirmed in July that land reserved for the Creek Nation since 1833 — and that now includes much of Tulsa and eastern Oklahoma — remains “Indian country” because Congress never abrogated the treaty that created the reservation. The brief argued that significant non-Indian populations today live successfully in or near reservations.

“The win itself was unexpected because the federal government and state government acted like reservations didn’t exist for decades,” Routel said.

Q: What’s the best way to start a conversation with you?

A: If you’re outside walking any dog, then I’ll stand there and talk to you about pretty much anything. I have four ankle biters. They’re not well behaved on a leash but I try every now and then.

Q: Why did you study law and pursue it as a career?

A: I was a music major and figured out that I wasn’t one of the top 10 classical recording artists in the world and should think of something different to pay the bills. I started taking classes with a professor who was an expert on northeastern Indian archeology and started to think about working with tribes to protect sacred sites, archaeological sites and use the law to do that.

Q: What’s a pet peeve of yours?

A: Placing peanut butter in the refrigerator.

Q: What do you like best about your work?

A: Teaching law students and then staying in touch with them. The Indian law community is still fairly small, particularly in the Midwest. So I get to interact with them as practicing lawyers.

Q: What do you least like about it?

A: Faculty meetings.

Q: What do you like doing away from work?

A: Spending time with my horse, Stormy. He’s an off-the-track thoroughbred. He raced at Canterbury Park last year and I adopted him around Thanksgiving from a rescue in North Dakota called Bowman Second Chance Thoroughbred Adoption. I’m lucky enough to be working with this great trainer Michelle Stephen at Owl’s Nest Farms to retrain him as an English riding horse.

Q: If someone visits you in your hometown, what would you take them to see or do?

A: I grew up in Vernon, New Jersey. If we had a time capsule, I’d take them to Action Park, which was this insane amusement park that I worked at for six years beginning when I was 14 years old. HBO just came out with a documentary about it. We used to call it Class Action Park or Traction Park. It was the best job I ever had as crazy as that is.

Q: Is there an attorney or judge, past or present, whom you most admire—and why?

A: My long-time mentor Vanya Hogen (attorney at Hogen Adams). She’s very even-keeled and calm, very organized. She’s a great writer. Most importantly she’s quietly confident in her own abilities. She can really help train young lawyers without being competitive with them, giving credit to them for their work.

Q: What’s your favorite depiction of the law or the legal profession in popular culture?

A: If picking the traditional inspirational movie I’d probably say “Philadelphia.” But my fun pick would be “My Cousin Vinny.” My brother’s name is Vincent. My mom’s side of the family is Italian-American and we’re from New York-New Jersey. I work with expert witnesses all the time and I’ve never had an expert witness as effective as Marisa Tomei is in that movie.

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