Thanks to the tireless efforts of a team of Pillsbury lawyers, a long-running dispute between the Cherokee Nation and descendants of slaves originally owned by members the tribe—also known as Cherokee Freedmen—culminated this September with a momentous victory for the firm’s pro bono clients. After more than a decade of contentious litigation, the Cherokee Freedmen are now recognized as full Cherokee citizens and are thereby entitled to full tribal benefits under the law.

Led by DC Litigation senior counsel Alvin Dunn, the pro bono team prevailed on cross-motions for summary judgment in August 2017 when U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan held that the Treaty of 1866 between the Cherokee Nation and the United States requires the Cherokee Nation to provide Cherokee Freedmen with the same citizenship rights as native Cherokees. Following that ruling, the Attorney General of the Cherokee Nation announced that the tribe would not appeal the decision and had begun accepting and processing Freedmen applications for citizenship. Pillsbury lawyers then secured a judgment against the Cherokee Nation, thus cementing the citizenship rights of the Cherokee Freedmen. Pillsbury also obtained from the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, who has oversight authority over the Cherokee Nation and other Native American tribes, commitments to help ensure the Cherokee Freedmen’s equal access to federal Indian Health Services and other federal benefits administered by tribes.  On September 5, Pillsbury filed a joint stipulated dismissal on behalf of the Freedman, resolving all remaining claims related to the case.

Pillsbury has represented the Cherokee Freedmen since 2003, when the firm filed suit on behalf of the Cherokee Freedmen against the Department of the Interior and its Secretary after the Department failed to require the Cherokee Nation to permit the Cherokee Freedmen to vote in tribal elections. The Cherokee Nation intervened and moved to dismiss based on sovereign immunity but dropped its procedural defenses after the Cherokee Freedmen prevailed on two appeals and on a motion to transfer a related case from Oklahoma to the District of Columbia.

“We are extremely proud that, after overcoming enormous obstacles and long odds, our team has both vindicated the rights of the Cherokee Freedmen to equal citizenship in the Cherokee Nation and obtained express affirmation from the federal government that the Cherokee Freedmen are eligible for federal benefits managed by other Indian tribes on an equal basis,” Dunn said.

In addition to Dunn, the Pillsbury team representing the Cherokee Freedmen includes Litigation senior partner Jack McKay, counsel Cynthia Robertson and associate David Grossman.