Two founders of Hobbs Straus Dean & Walker walk on, leaving hard-to-fill shoes; their work on Indian self-determination and self-governance served as foundation for contemporary tribal sovereignty
In the cold, dark days of February, two of Indian country’s legal giants walked on, days apart from each other. On February 12 Charles Hobbs, 88, passed, followed on February 16 by S. Bobo Dean, 84.
Their achievements were monolithic, the very foundation upon which Indian sovereignty and self-determination rest today.
Both men sprouted their legal wings in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was in full swing. Armed with law degrees from two of the most prestigious schools in the United States – Dean’s from Yale and Hobbs’ from George Washington University – they represented Indian country exclusively for more than 50 years. Neither was American Indian, but both felt deeply committed to Native communities, according to several colleagues and friends who shared remembrances.
Reid Peyton Chambers, a founding partner of Sonosky Chambers and a long-time colleague of both, described their passing as a “double loss” and “a real thinning out of that generation of lawyers.”
According to Chambers, Dean was known as the “Dean of 638,” a reference to Public Law 93-638, the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act that translated President Richard Nixon’s landmark Indian self-determination policy into reality by allowing tribes and tribal organizations the authority to manage federal programs that impacted tribal members, resources, and governments. His mastery “moved tribes into the driver’s seat in terms of administering programs and themselves, and functioning as real governments,” Chambers said.
Hobbs, Chambers recalled, “was a master at bringing claims against the government.” As “one of the few who’d written law review articles on Indian law – fishing rights specifically – in the late 1960s,” he became much more than an authority on Indian fishing rights. He ultimately argued the famous Mitchellcase – twice – not only establishing that sovereign immunity doesn’t apply to the United States as trustee of the tribes, but allowing the Quinault Nation to recover millions of dollars as a result of the federal government’s mismanagement of the sale of reservation timber.
Both gentlemen were “meticulous and trailblazing lawyers” from the top of their law school classes who “chose to dedicate their legal careers to making things better for a group of people that had been underrepresented and mistreated by the government,” Chambers said.
Jerry Straus, co-founder of Hobbs Straus, who worked with Hobbs for 50 years and with Dean for 35, concurred that Hobbs’ win in the Mitchell case at the U.S. Supreme Court “illustrated his great ability as a litigator.”
“It was a landmark case in the management of Indian resources and has been cited thousands of times as the foundation of the breach of trust law,” Straus said. “Charlie never gave up no matter how bleak the odds seemed. He was able to prevail due to good legal skills and determination.”
Dean, though not a litigator, per Straus’ account, made his great contribution in taking the lead role in enacting and implementing Nixon’s 1970 self-determination act. Straus explained that the law was quite controversial at the time, and while some tribes feared it, others saw it as an opportunity to take over governing their own tribes themselves.
“Bobo led the way with negotiations…in reversing BIA and IHS violations of the act,” Straus recollected. “This transformed Indian affairs; tribes that didn’t have money could now hire staff, and had the impact on strengthening tribal governments and programs.”
Geoffrey Strommer, a partner at the firm, portrayed their combined contributions as resulting in the development of strong administrative structures – good government and good administration – at the tribal level. On a personal level, he saw them as very different. “Both were very smart, but Charlie was very funny, a wonderful teacher and mentor, and one of the sharpest wits I’ve run across in my life. He held people up to a high standard and expected that you’d carry out your business with that in mind…and let you know if you didn’t do the work right!”
Strommer was personally impressed at how quietly Hobbs went about for decades doing pro bono work for the Native American Rights Fund, and “donating his time in ways most people don’t know about or understand.” He was also awed by a totem pole Hobbs personally carved. “I think he did it with a chisel and hammer…it wasn’t clumsy, but very refined. The most interesting thing, though, was that the animals on the pole were from in and around the D.C. area – squirrels and raccoons!”
Dean, Strommer recollected, was very smart but was more emotional, highly intellectual, a Rhodes scholar, and a real gentleman. “Clients would say he’s a traditional southern gentleman in how he carried himself, but he was very aggressive in pursuing clients’ rights,” he said.
Strommer admired Dean’s ability to mentor, as well as his attitude that “Indian people could do it better themselves” as Dean sought to cut the federal government out of Indian lives to the extent tribes wanted that. Making the government accountable and returning the power of self-governance to the tribes when the feds failed was Dean’s strong suit, he said.
“The two men are part of the DNA of Indian law and the fabric of tribal sovereignty,” said Chris Stearns, who is Of Counsel for Hobbs Straus Dean & Walker.
Jennifer Romero, currently staff director and chief counsel for the Democrats of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, began her career working directly for the named partners. She remembered Hobbs as “an incredible mentor, and such a hard worker who was there almost as much as [she] was,” which she thought remarkable as a young associate. But he was also very engaged with the associates, and he was “very willing to go the extra mile to teach them and point [them] in the right direction.”
When Romero was “a baby lawyer,” as she put it, she recalled going to Hobbs and asking how he prepared for such high stakes environments, especially on the Mitchell cases, which he took from trial court to the Supreme Court, then back down, then back up in Mitchell II. He told her that, while nervous, by the time he got to the Supreme Court, “there wasn’t any question [he] couldn’t answer.” He told her to always remember that she’s the expert because she has been with her case since day one. “As long as you’re doing good work, you’ll be prepared,” he told her. More than that, she described him as “always kind, always accessible” and said, “His contributions to Indian law will be difficult to surpass by anyone.”
Working with Dean was equaling inspiring, Romero shared. “The advantage to working at Hobbs Straus was that you work with these incredible legal minds on a one-on-one basis on issues that they were pioneers on,” she said. “[For] Bobo it was the Indian Self-Determination Act. He worked on that…and was primary author on that. That law alone ushered in the self-determination of federal Indian law.” Learning from him was one of her greatest honors because he taught her the fundamental mechanics of law – contracting, compacting, and the importance of self-determination for Indians’ future.
“Both of their legacies – for Supreme Court jurisprudence and the mark they made in Congress and on the Hill in federal law – will live well beyond the next generation of lawyers,” Romero said.