By Sarah Mansur
Law Bulletin staff writer
Nearly a year ago, President Donald Trump signed an executive order allowing the Dakota Access Pipeline construction to cross Lake Oahe in North Dakota, just upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation.
In 2016, months before Trump was inaugurated and signed his Jan. 24, 2017 order, violence broke out between activists protesting the pipeline and law enforcement, prompting a large number of arrests.
Chicago attorneys Melinda L. Power and Patricia J. Handlin are among the dozens of out-of-state lawyers who traveled to North Dakota two years ago to represent those arrested during protests of the nearly 1,200-mile pipeline, which spans from North Dakota to downstate Illinois.
Members of the Standing Rock tribe and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, along with many activists, have been trying to prevent oil from flowing through the pipeline under Lake Oahe, which is a primary source of drinking water for the tribes and considered sacred to the tribes’ spiritual practices.
Before she first went to North Dakota in November 2016, Power said she watched news coverage of the protests and felt compelled to provide her legal assistance.
“I thought, ‘This is such an injustice,’” said Power, of the West Town Law Office. “I saw a video of a woman from New Zealand, a lawyer who went to support the protesters. I said to myself, ‘If she can come from New Zealand, I think I can go up from Chicago.’”
The Water Protectors Legal Collective, a legal support group for the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance at Standing Rock, was forming around that time.
“So there was a vehicle for me to go up there and help contribute my legal skills,” she said.
Power and Handlin, who traveled to the pipeline protests in December 2016, volunteered at the Standing Rock Reservation to offer legal help to those who were arrested or needed legal advice.
“The reason it interested me so much is that I’m one of those people very concerned about climate change and I support renewable energy. I was concerned about the pipeline,” said Handlin, of Patricia J. Handlin & Associates. “I was outraged by the conduct of law enforcement against what I came to learn were peaceful and prayerful protesters.”
Power and Handlin agreed to represent clients who were charged during the protests with misdemeanor state crimes, such as disorderly conduct or resisting arrest.
Their clients were part of the more than 800 people who were charged with state crimes during the pipeline protests from September 2016 through February 2017, according to the Water Protector Legal Collective’s website.
Roughly 311 of those state criminal cases have been dismissed, according to the group’s website, and about 111 cases concluded with a plea agreement. About 324 cases are still pending.
In addition to the state criminal cases, there is federal litigation involving the pipeline, including the Standing Rock tribe’s lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers.
Reversing a decision from the Obama administration, Trump’s Jan. 24 order approved an easement for construction of the pipeline.
In October, U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg ruled that the federal permits authorizing the pipeline to cross the Missouri River at Lake Oahe violated the National Environmental Policy Act but his order still allowed oil to flow through the pipeline. That case, filed in July 2016 in Washington, D.C., federal court, is Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, et al. v. The Army Corps of Engineers, et al., No. 16-cv-01534.
Power is also involved in a civil rights class-action lawsuit alleging the excessive use of force by police officers against protesters during a conflict on Nov. 20, 2016.
That case is Vanessa Dundon, et al., v. Kyle Kirchmeier, et. al., No. 16-cv-406.
In the complaint, lead plaintiff Vanessa Dundon claims she was struck in the face and eye by a teargas canister and may never regain vision in her right eye.
The legal team in that case filed an interlocutory appeal to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals while the lawsuit proceeds in the U.S. District Court for North Dakota.
Power and Handlin, like many of the attorneys who volunteered to take on pipeline clients, have a history representing protesters and taking on civil rights cases.
For example, Power represented protestors arrested for speaking out against the Gulf War in 1991 as well as five of the NATO protestors arrested in Chicago in May 2012.
“One of the reasons I became an attorney was to ensure that people have the right to stand up and speak and protest. I’m an activist myself. I’m not just an objective attorney,” Power said.
“I’m really happy to represent people who are saying, ‘We don’t think things are going well in this system for a lot of people, and we want to be part of a movement that changes things.’” she added.