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Ask Robert Rosette about the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, and you will hear the emotion in his voice.
“I’ll tell you what,” the 1996 ASU Law graduate says, pausing to find the words. “I just love the school so much. What they did for me.”
Rosette hearkens back to a dark moment he had as a broke law school student. Far from the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation in Montana where he grew up, Rosette had a pregnant wife, two kids and a full-time courseload. He was struggling to make ends meet, relying on food stamps and WIC. And then his only means of transportation, an old Buick Regal, was stolen.
“I lived in Mesa, about 15 miles from campus, didn’t have insurance, and the car was totaled,” he said. “So I was in really big trouble, because I had no way to get to school.”
He also had no way to get his wife to the Indian Medical Center in Phoenix, a concern he had shared with one of his professors, Rebecca Tsosie.
The next time he was on campus, he was handed the keys to a Volvo.
“Dean (Richard) Brown of the Law School Library worked with Dean (Richard) Morgan and some professors who had all chipped in and they gave me a Volvo,” he said. “They just gave it to me, no questions asked. They just said, ‘Here’s a car. We understand you’re going through a hardship. Here’s a Volvo and here’s money to get it up to speed.’ I was able to make my classes, resume normalcy and get my wife to the doctor.”
As Rosette says, it’s just one of many examples of how the ASU Law community went above and beyond for him.
“When you sign up to go to law school, you don’t expect people to take care of you like that and see you as their family and have genuine concern and, basically, love for you,” he said.
ASU Law Dean Douglas Sylvester says the school has always made the well-being and success of its students — not just in the classroom, but in life — a top priority.
“Robert’s story is a great example of ASU Law’s commitment to making law school accessible and ensuring our students are given every opportunity to succeed,” Sylvester said. “His experiences as a student and the relationship he has maintained with ASU Law in the years since reflect the tightknit culture that makes this such a special law school.”
The connection was strong from day one. A member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe, Rosette had always wanted to practice federal Indian law. While attending the Pre-Law Summer Institute for American Indians, he was recruited by ASU Law.
“It was literally the first time I was on an airplane, was a trip to visit ASU,” said Rosette, who connected with other Indian students and was impressed by the likes of Professor and former Dean Paul Bender, a deputy solicitor general in the Clinton administration, and Judge William Canby Jr., one of the law school’s founding faculty members.
“I knew it would be a terrific opportunity to study federal Indian law,” Rosette said.
He says the education was outstanding, offering curriculum and coursework that you can’t get anywhere else. But the connection went beyond the classroom. He was embraced by the professors, practicing attorneys and other students.
“They made you feel that you were part of an important family,” he said.
As Rosette was graduating from ASU Law in 1996, Harold Monteau — a member of Rosette’s tribe — was just completing his time in the Clinton administration, where he had served as chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission. He started a law firm in Washington, D.C., called Monteau and Peebles, and hired Rosette.
Less than a decade later, in 2005, Rosette returned to Phoenix to start his own law firm, Rosette, LLP.
“I envisioned a law firm that would only focus on federal Indian law, meaning we wouldn’t represent banks or development companies or casino interests or oil companies,” he said. “Just practice Indian law, purely on the tribal side as a tribal member from Rocky Boy. That was my original ambition and what I always wanted to do.”
But some may wonder, why Phoenix, after growing up in Montana and building a career in Washington?
“The reason I came back to Phoenix was because of the ASU Law family,” he said. “I just fell in love with the area and the school. I wanted to be closer to the school, there’s tribes in Arizona, and I didn’t represent any of them at the time, but I figured I’d open a law firm and make it a national practice with the sole goal of only representing Indian tribes, and over the last 16 years, we’ve managed to do that.”
Rosette, LLP, now has offices in Arizona, California, Michigan, Oklahoma and Washington, D.C., and a staff of 26 attorneys. Nearly half — 12 — are from ASU Law’s Indian Legal Program.
And for good reason.
“Federal Indian law is difficult to understand, it's complex,” Rosette said. “You really have to have a deeply rooted understanding and knowledge of federal Indian law to be a successful Indian law attorney. It's not something you can just pick up overnight. ASU Law provides that core training, where students come out understanding the sacred notion of tribal sovereignty.”
And understanding — truly understanding — tribal sovereignty is not easy.
“You have to understand how to protect it, how to utilize it, how to respect it so it's not eroded,” Rosette said. “The whole nation-building concepts of tribal sovereignty, administering government services to tribal citizens, and then conducting yourself as a responsible government when dealing with other governments in a government-to-government fashion, whether it be the federal government or other state governments, and respecting those sovereigns. So it's hard to take fresh law students from other schools or even other attorneys who have been practicing and have them grasp that. But when students come out of ASU Law’s Indian Legal Program, they've got the cornerstones of what it means to be an Indian law attorney, and protecting tribal sovereignty. And not just protecting it, but utilizing it in a very responsible manner.”
In addition to Rosette himself, his law firm’s roster includes the following alumni of the ASU Law ILP program:
Rosette is thankful for what the Indian Legal Program has provided, both in terms of his own education and a pipeline of talented attorneys for his law firm, and stays deeply involved. He is a member of the Indian Legal Program Advisory Board and founded the Rosette, LLP, American Indian Economic Development Program, which presents the annual “Wiring the Rez” e-commerce conference for tribal governments, businesses and entrepreneurs. The sixth annual Wiring the Rez conference was held in January on the Gila River Reservation.
“It has been a very successful and beneficial series of conferences for the ILP," said ASU Law Professor Robert Miller, faculty director of the Rosette, LLP American Indian Economic Development Program.
The conference explores the intermingling of federal Indian law with e-commerce and modern economics, which Rosette says can be quite complex.
“It's a jurisdictional quandary of who has jurisdiction over transactions that occur online, whether it's tribal governments, whether it's state governments, whether it's the federal government,” he said. “And also, whose laws apply on various transactions, and liability issues. It's a trailblazing conference that explores issues that really no other law school and no other program really have.”
Miller says an endowment fund created by Rosette has allowed the economic development program to launch a project with students researching and drafting a how-to manual for tribal governments to assist in the creation and development of private-sector economies on their reservations.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected the entire world, but Indian communities have been especially hard-hit. As Rosette points out, the crisis is exacerbating inequities that already existed.
“For the tribal clients, it's devastating, because we already have underserved populations with regard to health care, essential government needs, housing needs, medical care needs, education needs,” he said. “So when you bring the pandemic into those communities that are already hurting, the harm is exponentially greater. Even the tribal economies lucky enough to have a casino have been devastated, because the casinos, until recently, were all closed. And with a lot of aid going to states and municipalities, Indian country is often left behind. It's always difficult and troubling from where I'm sitting to see that.”
The pandemic has brought those fault lines into sharper focus, underscoring the need to address a host of problems afflicting tribal communities. One such area is economic diversification, specifically in the e-commerce sector.
“A lot of the brick-and-mortar businesses are closed, but the e-commerce businesses that some of the tribes have begun to venture into are still open and still functioning and still generating badly needed revenue,” he said. “So one takeaway from that is when you diversify your tribal economy, you should look to diversify into e-commerce opportunities, specifically off of the reservation.”
Further developing tribal economies is the kind of work Rosette and his firm enjoy doing. But for the time being, the firm is busy helping clients navigate the COVID-19 crisis. That includes ensuring they are receiving their full entitlements under various federal programs, properly handling contract agreements, and complying with all applicable tribal and federal employment laws.
“Our firm enjoys working with tribes on development projects and growing tribal economies, but unfortunately, where we've been focused the last several months has really been crisis management and legal maneuvering to ensure that our clients stay protected and as strong as can be as governments coming through this pandemic,” he said.
When times are tough, it’s always good to know you can rely on your family. And Rosette is especially thankful now to have so many graduates of ASU Law’s Indian Legal Program at his firm.
“It’s reassuring to know that we’ve got such skilled attorneys from ASU Law who can competently handle this crisis for our clients,” he said.
And for ASU Law, the family bond with Rosette remains as strong as ever.
“Rob is an enthusiastic and loyal supporter of ASU and the ILP, and it’s a pleasure to know him and work with him,” Miller said.
Kathlene Rosier, executive director of the ILP, says Rosette has made a lasting impact at ASU Law — an impact that is felt throughout the industry and region.
“Rob has shown such strong commitment to ASU Law and the Indian Legal Program,” Rosier said. “He has played a vital role in growing the next generation of Native lawyers, while thinking of innovative ways to serve Indian Country.”
It’s something he learned as a student at ASU Law, a school that — especially in his hour of need — found such innovative ways to serve him.