The Heritage Legal Eagles
Rocio Perez, a senior majoring in criminal justice, has known that she wanted to be a lawyer since middle school. When her teacher asked the class to do a report on future careers, Rocio even crafted a paper briefcase for her presentation. And she remained steadfast to her goal until, just this summer, she finally got a taste of what her future as an attorney would be like.
Rocio recently completed a 10-week internship at the law offices of Stevens and Granados in Yakima, helping clients with immigration issues. Given President Obama’s announcement to allow work permits for adult children illegally brought into the U.S. as minors, Rocio ended up handling a dozen cases.
“It was an amazing hands-on experience and so much more than I expected,” she said. “It really reaffirmed my decision to go into law.”
After completing her internship, Rocio was offered a job as a legal aid by the same office, which she negotiated into a part-time position.
“Becoming a full-time legal aid was so tempting, but I have to stay focused on my ultimate goal of becoming an attorney,” she said.
Rocio is one of 45 Heritage students who have declared their intent to pursue degrees in criminal justice. The degree has only been offered since 2009, yet upon graduating, these students will join a small but successful club of alumni already in legal professions, including:
The guardian angel judge
In the 10 years Patty Zack worked for the Department of Social and Health Services (DCSF), she saw her fair share of the inside of courtrooms. As a case manager responsible for the safety and welfare of children, she
frequently stood in front of a judge presenting the state’s case. When the Yakama Tribal Court had an opening for a judge, Patty decided to apply to the position and was quickly appointed the newest member of the judicial team.
There is no requirement for a tribal judge to have a law degree, but they do need a strong understanding of the law in order to legally base their decisions. The tribal court system operates much like a state system, with legally binding codes to guide decisions. As a sovereign nation, the tribe’s codes supersede state codes; however, federal law supplants all other laws, state or tribal.
As the primary court official for children, Patty describes her judge’s role as that of securing the best interests of children by making sure both sides in a court case do everything necessary to ensure a child’s safety and welfare.
Patty credits her years of with DCSF and her time in and out of the courts for giving her a solid foundation as a judge. She also says she did a lot of studying.
“When I came into office, I spent the first couple of days reading and re-reading the Yakama Revised Code,” Patty said, pointing to a two-inch-thick notebook.
The Indian Child Welfare Act stipulates that case workers must go above and beyond simple efforts to work with the families in building a safe and nurturing environment. Children may be pulled out of a home if it is deemed unsafe while the case manager works with parents to correct problems. If parents make insufficient progress, the court can rule they be vacated from the plan and the child remain in foster care. Since parental rights are never terminated, parents who complete requirements can later petition the courts to have custody reinstated.
“Our first concern is for the safety of the child,” said Patty. “Sometimes I have to tell parents, ‘You might not like what I have to say today, but it will make you a better parent tomorrow.’ Ultimately we want to see families reunited with the children in safe, loving homes.”
Patty is proud of her work and service to the Yakama Nation.
“The law is a great profession, one that I’d like to see more Indians enter,” she said. “It shows we are a government resolved to run our systems and take a lot of pride in how we work. As lawyers and judges, we help our people progress while maintaining our sovereignty.”
From law school to school law
On the other side of the Cascades in a world of manufacturing and urban sprawl, another Heritage alumnus provides legal counsel for the Tacoma School District. Felipe Mendez is working in his “dream career” as an education attorney.
The third largest education district in Washington state, the Tacoma School District includes 35 elementary schools, 9 middle schools, 5 high schools and 14 alternative learning sites, and it has more than 5,000 employees and 35,000 students. Overseeing the legal needs of the entire district are two people: Felipe, the assistant legal counsel and his supervisor, who is general legal counsel.
Felipe’s days are as varied as the issues before him. His work is best described as a focused general practice. One day he may be interpreting employment law in a dispute between the district and a former employee, the next he may be working with an elementary school on a student discipline problem. Most often, his work centers on issues that directly impact students, like academic policy, special education, enrollment and the school’s role in child custody cases.
“School law is so varied that I am constantly learning and applying the practice of law,” says Felipe. “One thing I enjoy about this environment is that I’m able to spend more time digging into an issue to find a resolution that is mutually beneficial to everyone.”
Like Rocio Perez, featured earlier in this story, Felipe was young when he started thinking about the law as a career. “The seeds of law school were planted very early in me,” he said.
At Heritage he found his desire to be an education attorney. He was a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and completed a summer study program in Washington, DC. There he saw how lawyers were instrumental in policymaking and wanted to be part of that process. He made his way to Seattle University for law school and spent several years working in private practice at Karr Tuttle Campbell in Seattle before moving to the Tacoma School District. While he is not on Capitol Hill directing policy, he is greatly satisfied in the work he does locally.
“At the end of the day I get a great feeling for helping the system move in a way that benefits all of us,” he said.