The beat of her own drum: Katharine Boyce ’71 builds practice in tribal law

Kate Boyce '71As a law partner at Patton Boggs LLP in Washington, D.C., Katharine Boyce’s days are not typically punctuated by the shake of a feather-tufted spear or the clink of beaded clothing.

Yet, on one extraordinary occasion in the early 1990s, there she stood amongst a whirlwind of color, feathers and tassels. In a circle of spectators, she stood awed as men danced—crouching, stamping, spinning, driven by a current of undulating voices and the thump of drums.

Boyce had arrived in Tahlequah, Okla., headquarters of the Cherokee Nation, for the groundbreaking of a new tribal health clinic and was then invited to this powwow, a tribal celebration deep with tradition, by Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller as a nod of thanks. Boyce had been instrumental in securing the federal funding for the new clinic, as well as funding to survey Arkansas riverbed lands so that the tribe could claim clear title and protect valuable oil, gas and other resources from trespass and theft.

She is the longest-serving female partner at Patton Boggs, now one of the largest law firms in the country. Her work with Indian tribes and other Native American organizations is a central part of a career that largely has been devoted to promoting and defending the interests of indigenous peoples. The roots trace back to Wheaton.

She came to Wheaton already politically active. Her mother was a passionate Democrat, and Boyce wore buttons and stuffed envelopes for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign as a sixth-grader.

Her interest in politics and women’s rights found a catalyst at Wheaton. Government 101, taught by Professor of Political Science Jay Goodman, inspired her to pursue a major in government. After graduation, Boyce moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked for Congressmen James O’Hara and Brock Adams, gaining valuable legislative experience at a young age.

Continuing her education, she enrolled in law school at the Catholic University of America. Toward the end of her first year, she received a call from O’Hara, who had returned to the private sector as a partner at Patton Boggs. The firm was seeking a law clerk with legislative experience, and Boyce fit the bill. Juggling full-time work and school, she earned her J.D. in three years.

In 1979, she became an associate at Patton Boggs, focusing on public policy. Early in her career she developed an expertise in political and federal election law. By 1985, she had gotten involved in an area of law that changed her career focus.

Patton Boggs, which had previously represented the Navajo Nation, was hired by the defense contracting company owned by the Cherokee Nation. Boyce worked on several projects with the company’s CEO, who introduced her to then Deputy Chief Wilma Mankiller. Patton Boggs began a long-standing relationship with the tribe (the second-largest in the United States, after the Navajo) after Mankiller was elected principal chief and retained the firm. Boyce served as Mankiller’s Washington counsel for the eight years she was in office.

Developing additional tribal clients, Boyce founded Patton Boggs’s Native American law practice, which has since expanded into one of the leading Indian law practices in the country. For Boyce, the last 25 years of immersion in this unique legal field have been challenging and exciting.

“Many people don’t have a grasp of what tribal sovereignty is,” says Boyce, who has also represented the governments of Spain and Pakistan, among others. “The tribes are sovereign nations whose rights as sovereigns are recognized in the U.S. Constitution, treaties and statutes.”

The complex legal circumstances surrounding tribal rights and interests trace back to the early history of the United States. While tribes enjoy sovereign rights and the inalienable possession of their reservation lands, they struggle constantly to protect their lands or to develop them, notwithstanding rigid, paternalistic regulations, Boyce says.

“Lots of statutes and regulations that were intended to preserve tribes’ rights are old, sometimes vague and cumbersome, and always hard to change,” she says. Quality of life and economic opportunity remain elusive on most reservations, many of which are among the poorest areas of the country.

Much of Boyce’s work with Native American clients has focused on economic development and infrastructure on tribal lands. Her efforts have secured appropriations for new health clinics, water and sewer systems, road expansion, and incentives for Indian contractors. A favorite longtime client is the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, which operates assistance centers that help Native American and tribal-owned companies start and expand businesses.

Her initiatives have even gone beyond American tribes; she has worked on a pro bono basis with indigenous tribes in Panama to clarify their legal rights. She is also assisting a client on a project that will help native Panamanian Kuna Indians harvest timber—from beneath the surface of a lake.

Pro bono work is a tradition in law, but those who know Boyce say her interest in public service comes naturally.

“For Kate, charity and goodwill is an instinctive part of her professional and personal life,” says Tom Donaldson, president of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS). Long the chair of the NOFAS board of directors, Boyce became involved in the 1990s because of the incidence rates on some Indian reservations. NOFAS works to prevent birth defects resulting from alcohol consumed by the mother during pregnancy, which the organization says is the nation’s leading preventable cause of developmental disabilities.

According to Donaldson, Boyce has organized many teams of Patton Boggs lawyers to assist NOFAS, including filing an amicus brief for NOFAS in support of a petition before the U.S. Supreme Court. The petition challenged the death sentence of a defendant who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. The defendant, Brandy Holmes—so named by her mother after her favorite drink—suffered from severe mental disabilities as a result of her condition. While the petition was denied, the NOFAS amicus brief helped bring attention to the serious impact of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. It was just one of the ways that Boyce has contributed to NOFAS’ cause, according to Donaldson.

“It’s her passionate dedication to the NOFAS mission that leads the organization, attracts others to the cause, and makes a difference to the individuals and families living with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders,” he says.

Boyce became a partner at Patton Boggs in 1987. It is an achievement that she is proud to have accomplished without losing sight of her first priority—her family. She says she wants her four daughters and other women she has mentored to recognize that there are many career opportunities available for women, without sacrificing a family life—even within the tough and complex area of Washington law and politics.

“I wanted to become the first woman partner at Patton Boggs who stayed and built an enduring practice,” Boyce says. “Yet, when I came up for partnership, I was married and had three kids. To juggle family responsibilities and maintain a practice was really a challenge.”

She attributes much of her own success to her Wheaton education.

Professor Goodman, who has stayed in touch with Boyce over the years, says, “It’s no surprise that she has accomplished so much, and her friends at Wheaton also have done well. It was pretty clear that she was very smart.”

At Patton Boggs, her office is a testament to a varied, fascinating career in full swing. The walls and nearly every flat surface are crowded with artifacts from the countries and peoples she has represented. One item she proudly displays is a photograph of herself with Chief Mankiller. (The iconic Cherokee leader and Medal of Freedom winner died last year.)

“It was very satisfying representing the Cherokee Nation and particularly working with Chief Mankiller,” Boyce says. “She was a wonderful role model and humanitarian.”

As much as Boyce was honored to work with Mankiller, it was the chief who honored Boyce that day at the powwow in Tahlequah.

To Boyce’s surprise, Mankiller called her out of the ring of spectators. In her hands, the chief held forth a gift—a white shawl with long tassels, patterned with blue doves.

“It was beautiful and so unexpected,” Boyce says.