Congratulations to Howard Shanker on Pro Bono Valor Award

Congratulations to Howard Shanker!


“Valor” is generally not something that comes to mind when we think of pro bono attorneys.  But that is exactly what came into play last night when DNA Legal Services honored attorney Howard Shanker, of the Shanker Law Firm, PLC in Arizona with a ” Pro bono Award for Valor Recognizing Howard M. Shanker for His Stouthearted Pro Bono Work to Protect the Environment and Tribal Sovereignty.”  Notwithstanding, it become clear very quickly that “valor”  was not a typo.  Shanker, the keynote speaker for the event discussed the importance of the work that DNA Legal Services does for the community.  He also discussed the importance of having private attorneys who are willing to fight for important causes – even if they don’t get paid.  The majority of Mr. Shanker’s remarks, however, were dedicated to recounting the political and ideological roadblocks, the unfounded and unsubstantiated attacks on his professionalism, and the abuses of process perpetrated, not only by other lawyers, but by federal judges, to counter his defense of the sacred San Francisco Peaks.

Shanker pointed out that a three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit – dominated by Democratic appointees –  initially ruled unanimously in favor of the Tribes.  That opinion, however, was rendered non-precedential on a questionable technicality by a majority of an en banc panel – split essentially along political party lines.  The same issue was subsequently re-heard by a second three judge panel, all of whom were appointed by Republican Presidents.  This second panel, not only unanimously ruled against Shanker on the merits, it found, with no explanation or justification, that he had grossly abused the judicial process.   As Shanker pointed out in his presentation, “we had the exact same facts and the exact same law at issue.  In a properly functioning system, you could anticipate the same result.  Here, however, the opinions of the two panels were not only different, they were contrary.”   What we see here, according to Shanker, “is a complete breakdown of our system of justice.”

The same hostile panel that ruled against Shanker and Tribal and environmental interests initially imposed sanctions on Shanker – again with no explanation or justification.  The panel, however, later withdrew the order on sanctions when it became apparent that en banc review of the sanction issue would be granted.  Amicus or friend of the court briefs were filed in support of Shanker by Ralph Nader, the Native American Rights Fund, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Morningstar Star Institute, the Association on American Indian Affairs, Women’s Earth Alliance, the Tribal Wisdom Foundation, and two professors of legal ethics from the Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law.   Essentially amici agreed that there was no indication of any wrong doing on Shanker’s part and that the court should not allow judges to sanction lawyers simply because the judges may have some anti-environmental or anti-Native American bias, as seemed evident in this case.  The organizational amici also expressed the concern that if sanctions were sustained in this case, they wouldn’t be able to get pro bono legal support from anybody on any future cases.

DNA Legal Services hosted the event in Flagstaff, Arizona to honor private lawyers who demonstrated outstanding commitment to providing pro bono legal services. DNA is a legal aid organization that works to protect civil rights, promote tribal sovereignty and alleviate civil legal problems for people who live in poverty in the Southwestern United States. Since 1967, DNA has provided free legal aid in remote portions of three states and seven Native American nations, helping thousands of low income people annually to achieve long lasting economic stability by providing access to tribal, state and federal justice systems.

Note:  We wrote about Howard’s battle with the 9th Circuit here (the 9th Circuit ultimately abandoned sanctions).

Howard’s firm profile is here.