When Law Professor Carole Goldberg received news early this year that she had been appointed to serve on a presidential commission, all kinds of corny thoughts came to mind, including, “I really want to make the president proud.”
Corny, maybe, but heartfelt. Goldberg, a national expert on federal Indian and tribal law who is articulate and deliberate with her words, has devoted her career to improving the criminal justice system that exists on Native American reservations. Her recent appointment by President Obama to the newly created Indian Law and Order Commission is certainly reason enough to make her law students and UCLA proud.
“As I’ve gotten older and reflected back on why this particular subject area was so attractive to me, I have really concluded that I found very compelling the struggles of Native peoples to sustain their cultures and resist forced assimilation,” Goldberg said, crediting her Jewish heritage as a factor in her fervor to study Indian law.
Goldberg, the Jonathan D. Varat Distinguished Professor of Law, is currently a co-principal investigator on a $1.5 million grant from the National Institute of Justice. As part of the study she has been conducting for the past three years with her husband, UCLA Sociology Professor Duane Champagne, and UCLA law students, Goldberg has been examining how the criminal justice system operates in Indian country, whether there are culturally informed way of managing it and whether the system serves the public safety needs of tribal communities. The study was launched after the U.S. Department of Interior found serious deficiencies in jails on tribal lands. The nine-member Indian Law and Order Commission is being tasked to do its own comprehensive study of the criminal justice systems, which made Goldberg a perfect choice for the job.
Currently, the question of who has the authority to prosecute crimes on reservations — the tribe, state or federal government — is complex. There are often circumstances where cases fall through the cracks, as well as substantial limitations on tribal jurisdiction, preventing them from fulfilling the justice needs of their communities, she explained.
Despite difficulty in obtaining solid statistical information about crimes on reservations, the reports she has found suggest the system has very serious problems, Goldberg said. An Amnesty International study, for example, showed high instances of sexual assaults of Native American women, and not limited to women living on reservations.
Goldberg’s career path was forged more by chance than by choice when a seminar she took at Stanford Law School required her to study a 1953 law that gave certain states criminal and civil jurisdiction on reservations. The seminar was taught by Monroe Price, a visiting UCLA law professor who flew in weekly to teach at Stanford.
Because no casebook in the field existed, Price was working on one. He assigned each student to help develop a chapter. Goldberg’s research focused on Public Law 280, which gave states criminal and civil jurisdiction on reservations, and “was part of a larger federal policy of the 1950s to terminate and forcibly assimilate tribes,” she explained.
The research paper she wrote on the law for the class ended up being cited by several courts; it also proved helpful to attorneys with the newly established Indian Legal Services Program, which provided federally funded legal services for the poor.
“I became fascinated by what I was studying,” she recalled. “At the end of the day, I wound up writing this 100-page paper for this seminar, which clearly exceeded the page requirement,” she said. Her assignment was eventually published in a condensed form in the UCLA Law Review in 1975, three years after she was hired at UCLA as faculty. Goldberg’s research was later cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1987 landmark decision that became the legal foundation for tribal gaming.
“I tell this story all the time to my law students because I want them to understand that the things they do as law students could very well chart the course for their future careers,” she said. The only reason she took Price’s seminar was because she, a graduate of Smith College, was on the west coast for the first time in her life and wanted to take a class that sounded western. Since her first choice — a class on western water law — was full, the seminar on Indian law had to do, she said.
Goldberg may have discovered Indian law by happenstance, but she always knew her life would involve some aspect of teaching. After realizing that “being a ballerina was not in the cards,” she decided that her mother was intuitive. “My mother jokes that I was teaching my classmates in nursery school,” she said.
She has managed to blend her teaching career with her legal expertise by engaging her students in her work. As part of her grant, she and her UCLA law students have visited 12 reservations and conducted hundreds of interviews with tribal leaders; tribal state and federal law enforcement officials; citizens of tribal communities; and criminal justice officials.
“The work I do benefits from multidisciplinary approaches,” Goldberg said, reflecting on the unique benefits of working at UCLA. “We have the American Indian Studies Center and the Interdepartmental Program in American Indian Studies here, and I have colleagues and students in a lot of areas with whom I can collaborate.” She also credits tremendous support from the law school, of which she was associate dean for six years.
“I have been blessed by a collection of colleagues that would be the envy of any law faculty member anywhere,” she said, noting that the UCLA law faculty have a national reputation for being “uniquely collegial and mutually beneficial.”
While her latest achievement, serving on the presidential commission, will add to her many responsibilities, Goldberg said she welcomes the challenge. The appointment gives her the chance to provide value and usefulness to tribal communities as well as “an opportunity to serve Indian country,” she said.
To read about the 10 faculty members who have been appointed by President Obama, see this.