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Kevin Washburn was headed to law school when he first came to New Mexico to attend the American Indian Law Center’s Pre-Law Summer Institute ( PLSI), housed at the University of New Mexico School of Law. The experience changed his life.
Washburn and his two siblings had been raised by a single mother in southeastern Oklahoma. A citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, it was not always easy growing up as an Indian in Oklahoma. After working his way through the University of Oklahoma with night and weekend jobs, and both scholarships and internships, he welcomed the all-expenses-paid opportunity that PLSI provided.
"It was the first time I had lived outside of Oklahoma, and it was the first time in a long time, that I did not have to work at an outside job while in school,” says Washburn. “That was a real luxury. Being able to spend the summer studying with 30 other American Indians was a treat. For the first time in my life, it was acceptable, and even good, to be an American Indian. The summer was also an introduction to a legal world governed largely by merit, in which values like hard work and intellect are more important than background or identity.”
That summer, in 1990, at the law school, he found an engaged and enthusiastic faculty, a playful spirit of intellectual inquiry, and a deep sense of community. "In teaching at Minnesota, Harvard and Arizona, I have never since seen a faculty more committed to students than the professors I met so many years ago at New Mexico," he says. "The more experiences I have had at different schools as both a student and professor, the more I have come to realize how special UNM is." Come July 1, he will join them when he takes over as dean of the school.
Washburn began his legal education at Washington University School of Law, but transferred, and in 1993 earned his J.D. at Yale Law School, where he was editor-in-chief of the Yale Journal on Regulation. As a law student, he had come back to New Mexico to spend a summer at Montgomery & Andrews. “Most of those lawyers who were then at Montgomery & Andrews in Albuquerque have since moved on, but I remain grateful to them for all I learned that summer,” he says.
After a year clerking for Judge William Canby of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, Washburn was chosen for the prestigious U.S. Department of Justice's Honors Program. One of his first assignments was a water rights case in Arizona, in which he faced senior litigators from some of the largest law firms in Phoenix. “It was intimidating,” he says, “but since I represented the biggest party of all, the United States, I had a greater speaking part in those hearings than even some of the name partners of major Phoenix law firms. As a young lawyer, I had to grow up quick.” For the next three years, he litigated cases in both state and federal courts on behalf of the U.S. in its role as trustee for Indian tribes.
Washburn returned to Albuquerque in 1997 as an assistant U.S. Attorney, serving in the office's Violent Crime Section. During this time, he taught part time as an adjunct professor at the UNM School of Law. Less than three years later, he returned to Washington, D.C., to become general counsel of the National Indian Gaming Commission. “It was an opportunity to be a general instead of a soldier,” he says, but his time as an adjunct professor had enchanted him and he couldn't shake the allure of academia.
In 2002, Washburn joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School, attracted to the independence of being able to set his own agenda and of working with law students. Even though most of his career has involved Indian country issues, he sometimes resented the notion that, as an American Indian lawyer, his duty was to serve that community. Nonetheless, his academic focus has centered on Indian law. Ironically, his first full Indian law class was the one he taught; it wasn't offered at either of the law schools he attended. He has taught many of the core law school courses, with an additional scholarly emphasis on criminal law.
After six years in Minnesota, including a year as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, last fall Washburn joined the faculty at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law.
Through a prolific portfolio of academic articles, book chapters, books and congressional testimony, Washburn has influenced public policy in both criminal law in Indian country and gaming. The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009, which addresses problems he has identified in his scholarship, is currently pending before the U.S. Congress. "It has been gratifying to see the U.S. Senate take up criminal justice reform after I have spent so many hours producing scholarship that rings the alarm bell about those problems," he says.
Washburn also is completing a casebook on gaming law, which is expected to be published later this year, and he has had some impact in the narrower Indian gaming field. "The National Indian Gaming Commission is grappling with issues I have placed on the agenda in academic forums.”
"Achieving relevance is the `holy grail' for a law professor; making a positive impact in the world is extremely important. My scholarship was inspired by the UNM professors who taught in the PLSI during the summer of 1990," he says. "They were deeply engaged in real-world legal issues and have made significant impacts outside academia. I have worked to follow in their footsteps.”
At UNM, Washburn looks forward to re-energizing the school's focus on its core values and ideals. He wants to build on its strong sense of community by reconnecting alumni to the community inside Bratton Hall. He is committed to providing the opportunity of a legal education to first-generation lawyers and providing the support they need to succeed in school. He also wants to insure that UNM law students experience a supportive but rigorous intellectual environment that prepares them to face the challenges of their first jobs after law school, and the rapidly changing world thereafter.
"The fundamentals of the UNM School of Law are sound and there is wide agreement about the importance of the school’s missions. My goal is to help the faculty, students and alumni live up to our widely held ideals," he says. "UNM School of Law is a very special place and I hope to develop financial resources to help the school continue serving all of its core values."
Washburn is married to Libby Rodke Washburn (`98). They have two children. He looks forward to dusting off his mountain bike and returning to a sport he discovered when he lived here in the 1990s.
"We have longed for New Mexico and have returned often to visit friends," he says. "We feel lucky to be able to return to a place we love."