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Robert Anderson, Solicitor for Department of the Interior
The list of contentious issues and legal questions on Robert Anderson’s docket is long and high-profile, and the decisions he makes are bound to anger someone. As the top lawyer for the U.S. Department of the Interior, Anderson often finds himself on the hot seat, and he’s okay with that.
As solicitor, Anderson ’83 is right where he wants to be—helping determine the policies and legal strategies that ultimately shape the environmental and land-use agenda of President Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. It’s the culmination of Anderson’s long career focused on American Indian law, and environmental, water, and natural resources law, spanning the realms of advocacy, academia, and public service.
"I feel like I owe a lot of my success to the University of Minnesota Law School. The great education I got there set me on my path.”
Anderson joined the Department of the Interior as principal deputy solicitor in January 2021. Biden formally nominated him for solicitor in April, and the Senate confirmed him in September. From day one, Anderson has been engaged in a broad swath of legal issues, such as oil and gas leasing policies, endangered species, water rights, American Indian land and treaty rights, and mining on public lands.
His responsibilities are just as varied. Anderson regularly gets into the weeds on legal decisions, consults with Haaland and other executive branch officials, and partners with the department’s 430 lawyers spread over 16 field offices. Interior also has jurisdiction over the U.S. territories.
Anderson manages Interior’s legal team and works on litigation strategies, including about a thousand cases pending in federal court. He helps develop legal positions on a host of controversial issues and serves as the chief ethics officer. In addition, Anderson is a key ally of Haaland and her work to implement Biden’s climate policy goals. Priorities include reducing greenhouse gases and championing renewable energy, all with a lens on environmental justice and protecting the sovereign rights of Indian nations.
“It’s a wonderful experience,” Anderson says. “It’s very fast-paced, and I’m really enjoying it. I feel like I owe a lot of my success to the University of Minnesota Law School. The great education I got there set me on my path.”
A member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Anderson grew up in Ely, Minnesota. He started his legal career at the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) after completing a summer clerkship with the Colorado nonprofit. Next, he and another lawyer opened NARF’s Anchorage, Alaska, office, where Anderson tackled litigation in state and federal courts, including a landmark case about water, land, and fishing rights that eventually was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
At NARF, Anderson developed significant expertise in public land law, American Indian law, and water rights. He put that knowledge to use when he was invited to join Interior’s legal team during the Clinton administration. For two years, Anderson served as associate solicitor for Indian Affairs and then was called up to work in Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s front office. He got involved with numerous initiatives related to national parks, national monuments, water rights, and much more.
Seeking a new opportunity, Anderson became a law professor at the University of Washington. For 20 years he headed the Native American Law Center and taught federal Indian law, water and natural resources law, and property law. Eventually, Harvard came calling, and Anderson spent a decade teaching there, one semester each year.
Anderson thoroughly enjoyed teaching and advising students, telling them to always be nice to coworkers because you just might work with them again. That became true for Anderson when he joined transition teams for President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Biden, and when he returned to the Interior.
Today, Anderson’s job unites all of his professional experience with the bonus of returning to public service. “I feel so fortunate to be in this position. Every day I think about what I can do to help accomplish the Secretary’s goals and the President’s goals,” he says. “I always told people this was the job I wanted since I worked in the department in the ’90s. I am extremely happy to be able to advocate for the environment and tribal nations as a public servant.”
Suzy Frisch is a Twin Cities–based freelance writer.
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