UVA Law Clinic Seeks to Protect Tribe's History

Utility Project Would Impact Virginia’s Mattaponi, Clinic Student Halima Nguyen '18 Argues in Amicus Brief
Halima Nguyen

“I was very impressed with the work of the law clinic and their dedication and professionalism,” lawyer Jill Grant said of third-year law student Halima Nguyen's work.

December 18, 2017

The Mattaponi Indian Tribe in Virginia is one of the six original Native American tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy, and lived in the Jamestown area at the time of the Europeans' arrival. Today, the tribe presents annual tribute to the governor of Virginia in keeping with traditions that date back to a 17th-century treaty with those early European colonists.

But now the tribe is worried about a proposal from Dominion Energy to build a major electric transmission line over the James River near Jamestown Island. According to the tribe, the transmission line would mar the site’s historic setting and adversely impact other culturally significant places.

Halima Nguyen, a third-year student enrolled in the Environmental and Regulatory Law Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law, is helping the Mattaponi people voice their concerns and preserve their connection to America’s birthplace.

Students in UVA’s clinic represent nonprofits, citizens’ groups and other organizations seeking to protect and restore the environment of Virginia and other parts of the country. As part of a six-credit, semester-long course, they gain real-world experience and examine cooperative and innovative ways for lawyers to engage in public advocacy.

Nguyen worked on an amicus brief filed Friday on behalf of the tribe with Cale Jaffe ’01, the clinic’s director and an assistant professor of law, and Jill Grant, a Washington, D.C., attorney whose firm, Jill Grant & Associates, focuses on environmental and federal Indian law. Jaffe and Grant filed the brief in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., in support of plaintiffs who are challenging federal permitting for the transmission line under the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws. 

Although Jamestown Island is not part of the Mattaponi Reservation, the land is of cultural and historic importance to the tribe.

“The proposed transmission line project threatens historic places our forefathers resided on, including Jamestown Island and the capital of the Powhatan people, Werowocomoco,” said Mark Falling Star Custalow, chief of the Mattaponi Indian Tribe.

“These sites directly relate to the history of the Mattaponi Indian people and are of great cultural significance to us. They educate the public about the historical role of the Powhatan peoples in the founding of the Virginia Colony, and in the founding of the United States itself,” Custalow explained.

Jaffe said that drafting the amicus brief presented an ideal opportunity to serve two key goals of the clinic.

“As a practicing legal clinic, our first goal is to serve our client. Here, that means making sure the historic concerns of the Mattaponi tribe are not overlooked by federal regulators. The field of environmental justice has long recognized that people of color are more likely than the population at large to suffer adverse effects from major environmental permitting decisions,” Jaffe said. “The clinic’s second goal is to serve our students, and this amicus brief afforded Halima the chance to work on a nationally significant issue interpreting one of our country’s bedrock environmental laws.”

The work has been personally and professionally meaningful, Nguyen said. This was also her first chance to research and draft an amicus brief in law school.

“It was awesome to help the Mattaponi voice their concerns and weigh in on a project that will impact their historical and cultural heritage,” said Nguyen, who will work as an associate at Winston and Strawn in Washington, D.C., after graduation. “Too often, minority communities are left without the opportunity to have their voices heard, and the chance to help raise up the voices of the Mattaponi on this important project was very special to me.”

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