Lawyer Richard Guest fights Native interests in Surpreme Court
by Hallie Sacks
WASHINGTON-- Richard Guest is a rare breed in the Native American community. Born to a white father and Filipino mother Guest is an oddity in his field; a non-native who has dedicated his life to fighting for Native rights.
A Supreme Court lawyer, Guest is often the underdog, taking on the U.S. government and multi-million dollar industries in defense of tribal interest. At this level nearly every case is wide reaching, affecting law throughout Native territories.
With such large implications the past few years have been difficult for Guest and Natives. Since 2005, the courts have sided against Native Americans in all seven cases that reached a Supreme Court verdict.
“It can be frustrating and jading,” said Guest. “But this is not a lost cause, not ever, not at all. Courts, like every institution, have cyclical lives; things will shift and change. I would just like it to happen in my lifetime.”
Guest, 43, grew up in a military family. His father, a U.S. soldier, met his mother while on duty in the Philippines. Shuffled between homes at a young age, Guest chose University of Arizona for college. Originally an economics and international political science major, Guest intended to focus his career on foreign economies and Southeast Asia.
His path shifted, however, when he picked up the novel “Ceremony” by Leslie Marmon Silko in an elective literature course. The story of a Vietnam veteran who returns from war and lives in pueblos among Natives sparked his interest and Guest began to delve deeper into Native culture.
“I realized there were third world economies right here in America; and that every treaty the government has entered with tribes has been broken,” said Guest. “My teacher told me that if I wanted to make a difference I should become a lawyer. At that point the pudding was set.”
After Guest graduated from the University of Arizona College of Law he practiced in a Seattle law firm and as a reservation tribal attorney. Meanwhile the Native community’s frustrations with the courts were growing.
According to Guest, in the 1990s tribes lost four out five cases at the Supreme Court level—a worse record than criminal defendants. This prompted organization. In 2001 tribal leaders and groups created a tribal sovereignty initiative, known as the Supreme Court Project, which created a litigation strategy to improve their court record.
Shortly after the project was created, Guest joined the Native American Rights Fund, the premier legal consulting and litigation organization for tribal communities, in the Washington, D.C. office. While working in the district, Guest witnessed a shift in the court—between 2001 and 2005 out of the 10 tribal cases brought forth, Natives won four and settled two: a big victory.
Recently, however, Guest has faced a string of losses, including his lawsuit against the Washington Redskins and Native mascots.
“The U.S. legal system was not created with this kind of [tribal] government in place. A lot of people believe Indian tribes shouldn’t have special privileges, that all of us are equal under the eyes of the law,” said Colby Duren, Guest’s legal administrative assistant.
The Supreme Court rejected Guest’s most recent case against states that violated land-rights but he continues to bring new suits against these abuses.
“It’s terribly frustrating, the courts just gave these states a pass,” said Guest. “It’s hard, but we know that we are in the right and at some point the times will shift. As long as I am in Washington D.C., I have no plans to stop the work I am doing.”