Each year, the Women’s Law Caucus celebrates outstanding women in the New Mexico legal community in honor of former Justice Mary Walters. As the first woman appointed to the New Mexico Supreme Court, Walters represents a pioneering spirit for women in the legal community. The award given in her name stands for courage, strong ethics, leadership and mentorship in the legal field.
Heidi Nesbitt, the Director of the Pre-Law Summer Institute (PLSI) and Assistant Director of the American Indian Law Center (AILC), has been named a recipient of the 2015 Justice Mary Walters Award. Ms. Nesbitt has served as the Director of the PLSI since 1984; the program serves to prepare American Indian and Alaska Native students for the rigors of law school. By replicating the first semester of law school, the concentrated program includes eight weeks of instruction, research and study which teach the incoming students the unique methods of law school research, analysis, and writing.
This nationally recognized orientation program is centered on solid legal education principles. For more than four decades, the PLSI program has remained dedicated to providing training for students to help them develop the skills necessary for the study of law. When the program first began, only about 25 Native attorneys could be identified nationwide, but now more than 1,000 students have attended PLSI with a law school graduation rate of approximately 90%.
As Director of the Pre-Law Summer Institute, Ms. Nesbitt has assisted hundreds of Native students, hailing from all over the country, as they prepare for the rigors of law school. While the program has assisted some students with lower than average predictors, it is also a preparatory program for students with a GPA and LSAT score in the top 25%. Many PLSI students have gone on to attend top law schools. The success of the PLSI is due to Ms. Nesbitt’s expertise and dedication to every student that attends the program. Her diligence in bringing top law faculty from different law schools, selecting exceptional teaching assistants, coordinating law schools’ recruiting efforts, matching students with law schools, tending to each student’s needs and concerns, all within an 8-week summer is an unbelievable accomplishment. Now the AILC Director, Helen B. Padilla, a PLSI alumna and former PLSI teaching assistant, states “Only Heidi can manage and orchestrate such a feat, summer after summer, and remain committed to PLSI’s goal of increasing the number of Native attorneys. Her impact on the legal community is immeasurable.”
Quoting one student, “I have witnessed first-hand the patience, humor, and unyielding grace Ms. Nesbitt brings to every aspect of her demanding position. Although she is not a lawyer, her work has been instrumental in progressing Native American lawyers, and thus, the legal community as a whole.” Ms. Nesbitt has helped prepare many future leaders, some representing their own tribes, or becoming law professors, others appointed to top state government posts, or serving in top federal positions, including several Assistant Secretaries of the U.S. Department of Interior (BIA). Importantly, many have returned home to directly serve their communities as tribal government officials or as tribal court judges. As a pioneer and a trailblazer for Native American students, Ms. Nesbitt embodies many of the same characteristics as Justice Mary Walters, and she is well deserving of this award.
The Honorable Anne Kass
The second recipient of the 2015 Justice Mary Walter’s award is the Honorable Anne Kass. With her spirit for activism and advocacy, Judge Kass has certainly left her mark on the New Mexico legal community. As an advocate for reform, Judge Kass spent much of her career serving as a judge in the District Court. Much of her work was focused on Family Law, through which she successfully instituted a less confrontational means for resolving domestic relations disputes.
Judge Kass began her career as a legal secretary. After several years of working at a small insurance defense firm, she left to begin her undergraduate schooling with the opinion that “lawyers and insurance companies were not particularly useful on the planet.” Fortunately a second job in the office of a young civil rights trial lawyer changed that opinion and solidified her desire to attend law school. Armed with the belief that lawyers were supposed to level the playing field, she developed an interest in consumer protection, truth in lending and advertising, and product safety.
Soon after Judge Kass joined the bar, she realized her desire to level the playing field wasn’t necessarily the purpose of the United States justice system. Never one to maintain the status quo, she decided to refocus her efforts and pursue a career in Family Law. In practicing Family Law, Judge Kass began to shift away from the adversarial model that so often defines the legal process.
Judge Kass has never been afraid to question, challenge, and reshape the system. Examining legal questions from every angle, Judge Kass fought for the best interest of the child when the natural parental rights ruled case law.
Despite her rich career as an advocate, and her efforts to fix what she believes to be a broken system, Judge Kass is modest about her innumerable accomplishments. While she admits to being proud of her public criticisms of what she believes to be a flawed system, she has been quoted hoping she will be remembered “as some kind of a crank, a scold, a radical.” Certainly, the people whom show up make change, and no one can deny that the Honorable Anne Kass showed up.
Please join us to honor these remarkable women and the efforts they’ve made for New Mexico! The Justice Mary Walters award dinner will be held at the University of New Mexico’s School of Law on Friday, February 27th, at 6 p.m. Tickets are $55 per person or $400 for a table of eight. For more information, or to reserve tickets to the event, please click the button below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.