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Wayne Law professor awarded $250,000 National Science Foundation research grant

February 25, 2014

DETROIT – Wayne State University Law School Assistant Professor Kirsten Carlson has been awarded a $250,000 grant for the university from the National Science Foundation.

Carlson will use the grant to conduct a two-year research project – “Legal Mobilization, Rights Claims, and Federal Indian Policy Reforms” – that aims to develop a better understanding of how, when and with what success American Indian nations use the political process to change the law.

The professor served as a staff attorney for four years at the Indian Law Resource Center in Montana with a practice on advocacy to protect the rights of Indian nations. She joined Wayne Law in 2011.

Carlson is excited about the project and the benefits it will bring to the university and to her law students, as well as to political and legal scholars and to Indian nations – the most impoverished group in the United States – seeking solutions to problems.

“The grant allows me to hire several research assistants to work on the project,” Carlson said. “I will also incorporate the research into several classes, which will train students about legislative advocacy. This is a great opportunity for students interested in advocacy to learn more about legal mobilization, advocacy strategies and the success and failure of advocacy strategies.”

The project begins officially May 1, but the professor already has developed a legislative database of all identifiable bills related to Indians that were introduced and/or enacted by Congress between 1975 and 2011 – a dataset of 6,968 bills.

“Few studies have analyzed the role of legislation in law reform in Indian country,” Carlson wrote in her grant proposal. “Indian nations lose in the U.S. Supreme Court over 75 percent of the time. As a result, many lawyers and advocates in Indian country have encouraged Indian nations to pursue legislation rather than litigate problems plaguing Indian country. Yet most legislation introduced in Congress never gets enacted.”

Existing data about political advocacy by Indian nations in the United States is lacking, as most political scientists omit Native Americans from their studies or narrow their areas of study to tribes involved in gaming, Carlson wrote.

“The proposed study will be the first to consider systematically the legislative strategies used by the 565 federally recognized Indian nations in the United States in their efforts to change federal Indian law and policy, and to measure their impact on law and policy change.”

Wayne Law Dean Jocelyn Benson noted that National Science Foundation grants are prestigious and that Carlson secured the grant on her first application, something that isn’t common.

“We congratulate Kirsten on being awarded the grant and on her important work in this study to provide more information about how American Indian nations are affected by the law-making process,” Benson said.

Carlson said the general lack of knowledge on Indians and Congress prompted her to start the project. “I really wanted to know whether tribal legislative strategies were successful, especially since Indian nations are increasingly pursuing these. I think research and scholarship should inform advocacy strategies, and we just don’t know enough in this area.”

The project, in its first stage, will involve sophisticated data analysis as well as the development of a new database of legislative hearings on each relevant policy proposal. The second stage of the project will involve case studies to provide context to the data. Carlson anticipates conducting 40 to 50 interviews.

The findings will be available to Indian law scholars, attorneys, advocate groups and tribal leaders through publications, conferences, workshops and participation in law and policy forums.

Carlson, who lives in Grosse Pointe Park, earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies from Johns Hopkins University, master’s degree in Maaori studies from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and a law degree and doctorate in political science from the University of Michigan. She teaches Civil Procedure and American Indian Law.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1353255. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.