Published April 15, 2018
WASHINGTON – Tobi Merritt Edwards Young, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation originally from Midwest City, Oklahoma, recently accepted a position as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. Young is thought to be the first enrolled citizen of a Native American tribe, and the first woman from Oklahoma, to serve as Supreme Court clerk. She will serve at the Court for a year, starting in July 2018.
Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby said that the selection of Tobi Young marks an important milestone.
“It is difficult to overstate the significance of having a well-qualified, experienced Chickasaw such as Ms. Young serving as Supreme Court clerk,” Gov. Anoatubby said. “Justice Gorsuch is well respected by tribal leaders for his understanding of tribal sovereignty and Indian law. His decision to select a Native American to serve as clerk underscores his appreciation of the importance of the Native perspective on Indian law.”
Lawrence Baca, the first American Indian hired into the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and 2012 winner of the Thurgood Marshall Award, has been a long-time advocate for having more Native Americans involved in the legal system.
In an article published by the Chicago Bar Association, John Levin wrote that “Baca suggested that if there were a Native American sitting on the Supreme Court, or even a Native American Law Clerk, we would see more sensitivity to Native American concerns.”
Coincidentally, Young crossed paths with Baca in the Civil Rights Division and he was helpful to her at the beginning of her career.
Justice Gorsuch gained experience in federal Indian law as a judge on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and received support from numerous Native American leaders and organizations during his confirmation process.
Both the National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund supported his nomination in a letter stating that “Judge Gorsuch appears to be both attentive to the details and respectful to the fundamental principles of tribal sovereignty and the federal trust responsibility.”
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes endorsed Judge Gorsuch’s nomination, while Indian Country Today Media Network wrote that “Gorsuch is seen by Indian law experts as more informed on tribal law than were many of Trump’s other potential nominees.”
Justice Gorsuch has said that Yellowbear v. Lampert was one of his ten most important decisions. In that case, he ruled that a Native American prisoner had a constitutional right to access the prison’s sweat lodge.
In Fletcher v. United States, Judge Gorsuch ruled members of the Osage Tribe had a legal right to demand an accounting from the Secretary of Interior for funds held in trust for the tribe.
Mrs. Young first met Justice Gorsuch when they were both working at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Gorsuch was Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General, where he oversaw the Civil Rights Division and other areas of civil litigation, while Young, a recent graduate of the University of Mississippi School of Law, started out as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division.
“Originally I was a trial attorney working on school-desegregation cases,” Young said. “A lot of people were surprised to learn there is still a lot of work to be done on desegregating schools in the south. I was also working on making sure Choctaws in Mississippi were receiving voting instructions in the Choctaw language.
“I also ultimately worked as a counsel for the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. As part of that job, I was able to travel to Geneva to be part of the U.S. delegation to the convention against torture. It was amazing to be around people from all over the world talking about these issues as a representative of the United States.”
When Judge Gorsuch was appointed to the Tenth Circuit, he recommended Young for a position as a law clerk to Jerome Holmes, who was appointed to the same court at about the same time, and therefore had the chance to work on many of the same Indian law issues that then-Judge Gorsuch considered.
“Judge Holmes gave me a great training ground for what I am getting ready to go do,” said Young. “He was a great boss to learn from. He expected excellence.”
Mrs. Young can trace her heritage to Winchester Colbert, the second Governor of the Chickasaw Nation. She said her father, Lonnie Edwards, took her to the public library at a young age to research her Chickasaw heritage and lineage to ensure that she remained connected with that legacy.
“I am very pale, and nobody is going to look at me on the street and say, ‘Oh, she’s Indian,’” she chuckled. “But it was very important to my father that I understand where I came from and he instilled in me the pride of being a Chickasaw.”
Mrs. Young, who is thought to be only the third Oklahoman to serve as Supreme Court clerk, said that she hopes her story will resonate with Chickasaws and others who grew up in Oklahoma.
“I hope that if other Chickasaws read about my experiences, they will recognize that nothing stops them from pursuing any dream that they have too. Somebody from where they are from is going to be working every day at the Supreme Court, and there’s no reason that there shouldn’t be many more to come,” she said. “It just makes it more of a reality or more of an option.
“That always worked for me. My dad would try to find examples of other women to talk about with me, so that I always knew if I worked hard I could get there. That is why I wanted to share with young men and women Chickasaws from Oklahoma that if they work hard in any field, there is no limit on their success.”
Mrs. Young currently works for the George W. Bush Foundation as General Counsel and Board Secretary, a position she accepted after working for President Bush in the Office of the White House Counsel. She said she is very grateful to President and Mrs. Bush for the opportunity to have worked for them and their foundation.
“My job has just been tremendous: I have learned so much and worked with some the best people in our nation’s public life. President and Mrs. Bush are truly incredible people who love this country so much and exemplify that by how they love and what they do,” Young said. “The things they do for the public or even for individual people that they never seek or even want publicity or attention for would amaze most Americans. I have been very lucky to have been able to be part of their work for so long.”