Legal Matters: From Public Interest Law to Historic Political Win

Representative Teresa Leger Fernández, JD ’87, in Conversation with Stanford Law Professors Gregory Ablavsky and Elizabeth Reese

Much of the history of the United States is about shifting borders and alliances—of land and contested ownership, of government and representation, of people and place. In New Mexico this story is particularly fluid, where Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans have staked a claim. It is a story that Teresa Leger Fernández, JD ’87, knows well because it is hers, a history that reaches back 17 generations to when her ancestors first arrived.

She describes herself as a “proud Chicana and proud Latina,” but the weight of her story is with her. “I carry within my heritage the history of being both the oppressor and the oppressed,” she says in the interview that follows.

Legal Matters: From Public Interest Law to Historic Political Win 1

When Leger Fernández won the New Mexico Democratic primary for the state’s 3rd Congressional District in June 2020, beating six other candidates, including well-funded former CIA officer Valerie Plame, it took some by surprise. But she went on to handily win the seat in the November election—and make history as the first Latina and woman to represent the district and a member of New Mexico’s first delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives consisting entirely of women of color.

Endorsed by national Democrats as well as Planned Parenthood and the Latino Victory Fund, Leger Fernández also had strong support from state politicians like then-representative Deb Haaland and local leaders from the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the Taos Pueblo—critical in a district made up of 40 percent Latinos and 20 percent Native Americans.

As a local attorney, Leger Fernández focused her practice on her community, so the activists in the district she now represents knew her well—and trusted her. That work began right after she graduated from Stanford Law in 1987 and returned to New Mexico. She specialized in community-building and tribal advocacy with Nordhaus Law Firm before starting her own firm, Leger Law and Strategy, which focuses on community development, tribal advocacy, civil rights, and social justice. For three decades, she served as general counsel to several Native American tribes as well as minority business and community enterprises.

In Leger Fernández, tribal and community leaders found a dedicated public service attorney who got results. She won important legal battles to advance voting rights, promote tribal sovereignty, and protect the environment. She helped secure nearly a billion dollars for—and then helped build—schools, rural health clinics, broadband, businesses, affordable housing, and critical infrastructure for New Mexico. She sought and gained important protections for sacred sites and was also involved in developing the legal, legislative, business, economic, and physical infrastructure for tribal sovereigns. She represented Native American tribes during the 2011 redistricting process and brought the lawsuit against Santa Fe that resulted in the city using ranked-choice voting in its elections last year. She helped draft and pass into law the first tribal-state tax agreement and has participated in the successful passage of every other tribal-state tax agreement since 1995. And more.

Her work attracted national attention, and she spent time in D.C., first as a White House Fellow during the Clinton administration and later when she served on the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation during the Obama administration. She also worked as a liaison between the White House Office and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The January 3 swearing-in ceremony for newly elected congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández was joyous and solemn, her oath to support the Constitution witnessed by her sons. Three days later, an angry mob from a Trump rally stormed the Capitol, scaling walls and breaking windows, intent on blocking certification of the presidential election.

Perhaps the trauma of that historic day spurred her on, the seriousness of the oath of office even more apparent. In five short months, she has introduced five bills and co-sponsored 102—on topics ranging from immigration to gun regulation. She has been appointed to the House Committee on Education and Labor, House Committee on Natural Resources, and the Committee on House Administration. She has assumed a leadership role with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as the Freshman Representative. And, vitally important for a state that includes 23 federally recognized tribes, she was named chair of the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples.

There’s much to do, but on a bright April morning, Leger Fernández makes time in her schedule for Stanford Lawyer—speaking from her New Mexico home, her aides popping in periodically to hurry her along to her next appointment. But she’s eager to talk, sharing an urgency about her mission—for the people of her state and for the country.

Here, Leger Fernández discusses her career with Gregory Ablavsky, associate professor of law and Helen L. Crocker Faculty Scholar, whose scholarship focuses on early American legal history, particularly issues of sovereignty, territory, and property in the early American West, and Elizabeth Reese, assistant professor of law, whose scholarship focuses on American Indian tribal law and constitutional law. Reese came to Stanford in June as the first Native American member of the law faculty. She is tribally enrolled at Nambé Pueblo—part of the Congress-woman’s district.

ELIZABETH REESE: I wanted to start off by getting some of your story. What inspired you to run for Congress?

TERESA LEGER FERNÁNDEZ: I ran for Congress because if you looked around over the last four years, and even before that, everything I loved, and everything I believed in, was under attack. You know, our democracy was under attack, our planet was under attack, our sense of humanity was under attack. You just had to look at how we were treating families at the border. And really, our future was under attack, because we were not investing in our children and our communities. And so I ran with this calling—and this motivation to protect what we love. My father had this saying when he wanted to get something important done that had been put off, he’d say, “Ahora es cuando.” And that’s on his memorial headstone. The translation is: It’s time, now, exclamation point. And so, I really felt like it was time to get involved—it was my time to run. And I really did anticipate that 2021 was going to be a transformative year politically, which it has been, right? I started running before the pandemic started, so little did we know how transformative and how heartbreaking it was going to be. But that theme of wanting to protect what we love is even more important in the face of a pandemic.

GREGORY ABLAVSKY: Many law students are figuring out their careers. Did you aspire to elected office when you were at Stanford law?

LEGER FERNÁNDEZ: So, when I went to law school, I very much knew I’d be involved in social change, and in serving my community. I had come out of Yale with a real sense of community involvement.

And so I knew I wanted to serve, but this is really the first time I’ve ever run for office or served in elected office. Sometimes people have a very clear idea of what they should be—“This is my passion, I’m going to do this.” I often say that it’s better to do whatever you’re doing passionately, and then things open up, and then you find the joy in it. And actually, when this opportunity opened up, I went and met with some of the tribal leaders and elders that I worked with. And one of them told me to get very quiet and listen to what my heart was saying, because sometimes, as he put it, destiny puts questions in front of you, and you must let your heart provide you with the answer. And I actually kind of got emotional because my heart told me this was what I had to do, even though, and people might not realize this, you give up a lot when you run for Congress—including being able to work with all these beautiful tribal leaders, as I had. So my heart told me that I had to respond to this moment of opportunity.

REESE: You were sworn in as the first Latina woman to represent our district. What was that historic day like?

LEGER FERNÁNDEZ: The two moments when it was most emotional were when I actually won on election night in November and then when I raised my hand in that chaotic swearing-in. It wasn’t a traditional swearing-in because of COVID. Normally, when you get sworn in, somebody from your family holds something and you raise your hand and you take pictures with the speaker. I didn’t get to have any of that. But I still had my three children with me—they came to the swearing-in—and they were so proud of their mama. And that made me really happy. It was a family decision for me to run, and they had been along for the whole ride. Seeing the reflective joy in their face was really significant.

ABLAVSKY: Are you finding that the experience that you had coming into office, practicing law, served you well?

LEGER FERNÁNDEZ: Yes, serving as an attorney makes it easier to work with laws and bills. But my preparedness had more to do with the work that I had been doing as an attorney—work in the community and on issues of significance to my community. I’ve introduced five bills and co-sponsored 102 [as of May 2021]. Take for example, the electoral reform bill HR1, For the People Act of 2021. Well, even before I was sworn in, I said, “Give me the bill,” because of my experience on Voting Rights Act issues. I did my markup of the bill as I was flying back home in early January—and I raised numerous issues and ways I thought we could make improvements to the bill. And we incorporated those into HR1, from issues with Native American voting rights to aspects of the bill, which require that everybody has the same amount of waiting time to vote. And why everybody should be able to vote in under an hour so that you don’t need to have water given to you, like Georgia has just outlawed, right? But that should be equal across the board, wherever you live, whether you’re in a minority community, in a working-class community or in an affluent community. So those are things that came out of work I had done here in New Mexico that was easily translated to the work in Congress. So being a lawyer helps, but more importantly, being involved in community is what gives me the experience of the things that need to be done.

REESE: That’s great. What is it like, now that you’re in Congress, to reflect back on law school?

LEGER FERNÁNDEZ: I think it’s really important to recognize that law is not static. That’s why we have a Congress, so we can constantly be updating our laws. But to recognize that the reason it’s not static, and should not be static, is because we have to constantly respond to what’s happening in society and, hopefully, push the arc of history toward justice.

One of the things that I recognize, as a lawmaker now, is how important it is to incorporate the advocacy groups—the people in the community who really know what’s going on, the people in the Wilderness Society who know where the pieces of land are that we need to be preserving. In New Mexico, we have issues around what we call acequias and land grants. We need to make sure we have those key community groups at the table because they will inform us and help us to know what we should be doing. The immigration bills that we passed out of the House—the American Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. Well, before I took a vote on those, I was meeting with the president of the United Farm Workers—people who know firsthand what needs to be done by the laws. And that’s something I don’t think we really focus enough on—how important it is to recognize the experts, those who actually live the experience. Whether they are union members or farmworkers or dreamers or farmers. We need to make sure we tap into that knowledge when we are writing bills.

ABLAVSKY: I’m covering some of the land grants in my Property Law class, including New Mexico and its unique history.

LEGER FERNÁNDEZ: Well, I need to tell you that when I was in my property class at Stanford, my professor wrote up on the wall the different kinds of property that were held. And I raised my hand and said, “Well, you know, we also have property that’s held in common, like land grants—community property.” And he said that I didn’t know what I was talking about. But I did—and we do! Tribes own their land, and we have community land grants.

ABLAVSKY: What are you working on and how does the process that you described, of working with the communities affected, play out in the committee setting?

LEGER FERNÁNDEZ: The reason I chose to be on the House Education and Labor Committee is that New Mexico continuously ranks 49th to 50th in education attainment. And the only way to change that is to really invest in education, and particularly in early education. And New Mexico right now is moving toward doing that—recognizing that early education is key. If you look at what we passed in the American Rescue Plan, we started putting money into the youngest children through the expanded Child Tax Credit and money for child care. And we’re going to be putting in money for early childhood education in President Biden’s American Families Plan. So that’s really a key thing that we need to do.

We have a lawsuit here called Yazzie v. Martinez, which found that New Mexico was violating the state constitution because it was not providing an adequate education to Native American and Latino language learners and at-risk students. At the federal level, I want to be able to assist with resources and with oversight of how those resources are used, to try to address that failure of the state to adequately educate our children.

One of the big issues we need to face in New Mexico is the transition to a new economy. We are a very fossil-fuel-dependent state. And so we’re going to need to invest in workforce development. So that work is also in the Education Committee.

“I think we are in a historic moment. There has been such death and despair across our country, particularly in our Native American communities and communities of color. COVID hit them hard.”

Teresa Leger Fernández, JD ’87

REESE: How do you think about and prioritize different water issues facing the state?

LEGER FERNÁNDEZ: In New Mexico, we have a system of irrigating our farms that goes back to the early Spaniards, who brought it over and merged it with the Native American ways of irrigating. And it’s called acequias. And I was an acequia commissioner and did some legal work to preserve the ability of acequias to push back against developers. In New Mexico, we understand how precious water is. And we have the saying, “Agua es vida”—water is life. And I always say agua es vida, acequia es comunidad. Acequias are community, because the wonderful way acequias work is they recognize that this resource is something that feeds the entire community.

And so, what we need to do at the federal level is recognize that and then start investing resources to make sure we’re using water most efficiently—and providing infrastructure to get it to where it’s needed. You know, in New Mexico and Arizona and throughout Indian country, there are way too many homes that simply don’t have running water. And there are cities and small towns that are going to run out of water—that need water piped to them. So we must start seeing water as the precious resource it is.

The other thing we need to do regarding water is do everything we can to make the soils healthy. And to work so that the water doesn’t erode soil, so that can regenerate our aquifers. All of those are things that, when we start thinking about this resource as not just something you turn on and turn off, but something that is precious, and that we must conserve.

REESE: (laughing) I was that kid who grew up digging out irrigation ditches very early in the morning.

LEGER FERNÁNDEZ: But it’s also such a celebration! There’s always food afterward, and stories told. And that’s why I love it as a metaphor, because it’s truly a community event about how we are bringing this precious resource to our community. I think that’s a perfect metaphor for how we should do a lot of things in our life. Community, working together for public good.

But, you know, there’s a whole lot more that we need to do for our water. For instance, we have the PFAS [polyfluoroalkyl substances] contamination, we have mining usage and contaminants, we have oil and gas that’s using way too much water. So, there are a lot of ways in which we’re utilizing our precious resource that do not necessarily provide the greatest good. And we’re going to have to take those issues on one by one.

ABLAVSKY: I’m from Massachusetts, the child of Russian immigrants. I didn’t have any real sense of the complexities of New Mexico until I went there. Your family has been there for generations. Can you talk about that?

LEGER FERNÁNDEZ: Yeah. So, I’m 17th-generation New Mexican. Which means I carry within my heritage the history of being both the oppressor and the oppressed. You know, proud Chicana, proud Latina, but you can’t be here for 17 generations without having a lot of beautiful Indigenous heritage as well. And the border did cross us—that’s what we always say. The border crossed us, we didn’t cross it. And this border was fluid at a certain point in time. We are in northern New Mexico, where we have maintained our ability to speak Spanish. Even though the last time this was officially a Spanish-speaking territory was 1848. But we preserved in our own constitution the protection of Spanish in the open. We preserved the ability to speak Spanish. But we also are very sympathetic to immigration as it exists now. Because we recognize that immigrants add to our cultural vitality, they help us preserve our Spanish language, and, let’s face it, the economic benefit to our country is huge. You know, it’s wonderful in the end to be very confident and proud of who you are with your own heritage, because then you can welcome and be curious and celebrate other people’s heritage as well.

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Representative Teresa Leger Fernández, JD ’87, campaigning for New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

ABLAVSKY: How do you convey that distinctive cultural aspect of New Mexico to your colleagues?

LEGER FERNÁNDEZ: I find it interesting that in New Mexico, especially in northern New Mexico, that we don’t have some of the issues of anger—real anger—that they have in some parts of rural America, that they want to blame somebody else. And I think it’s because we feel very grounded in our own history, even in its complexity. And it is not always easy. There is constant tension and constant dialogue that needs to take place, between Native Americans and Latinos and new immigrants and Black Americans. And everybody’s constantly interacting, but we at least have our history of cultural accommodation and cultural respect here. And I think that’s a valuable lesson for me to take to others in Congress. This idea that we can celebrate each other and still have a strong identity.

REESE: I wanted to ask you about mentorship. I heard that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland was a mentor for you.

LEGER FERNÁNDEZ: Deb Haaland has been an amazing mentor to me, and I worked for her Pueblo—the Pueblo of Laguna—for 30 years. I’ve known her since she was in law school, and she clerked at the Nordhaus Law Firm [where the congresswoman was a partner before she launched her own firm]. She’s one of those wonderful mentors in that she does it in this incredibly quiet way, and she’s incredibly generous with her time, and generous with her staff time. And they really helped prepare me to come to Congress.

And I have also been mentored by others in Congress. Rosa DeLauro, who’s now the chair of appropriations. Pete Aguilar, who’s vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus and a leader in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. I have found that my colleagues in Congress have been incredibly generous with their time, and with giving me advice. I didn’t know that there was going to be this level of generosity. I guess I just hadn’t thought about it. But there is a beautiful generosity among my colleagues.

REESE: Did you always seek out mentors?

LEGER FERNÁNDEZ: No. I really wish I had developed better mentors when I was going through life, because I am now really enjoying mentoring others. I am one of only 14 Latinas in Congress, so I am mentoring others who are running for office. I formed my own Ahora PAC to help Latinas and women of color who are running for Congress. And so I’m really enjoying now talking to Latinas who are coming out of college, who are coming out of their JD or master’s programs and starting to mentor others. It’s a wonderful role to play. I get more out of it than I give.

ABLAVSKY: Liz and I specialize in federal Indian law and are very interested in the future of Native communities. What do you think the opportunities are for Congress?

LEGER FERNÁNDEZ: I think we are in a historic moment. There has been such death and despair across our country, particularly in our Native American communities and communities of color. COVID hit them hard and highlighted failures in our trust responsibility. And the nation is now more aware of that than they were before.

I really want to utilize this moment to ask: How do we begin to truly fulfill that trust responsibility? We were talking about having a more comprehensive bill to cover all of the issues we need. I’d like to see us fully fund the Bureau of Indian Education and fully fund the Bureau of Indian Affairs and fully fund the Indian Health Service. So that then the tribes could take those services over—that’s a true expression of self-determination. And what I have seen is when tribes have taken over these services and their facilities, they do such a better job—being culturally competent and responsive to the community.

So I think we are also going to push to have maybe an Indigenous Day on the House floor. We could take a lot of different bills on important issues to our Native American communities to the House floor at the same time, so that everybody can recognize the range of issues that need to be addressed. It’s not just that they don’t have roads, and they don’t have health clinics, and they don’t have water, and they don’t have broadband. You know, they also have a need to protect cultural sites, they have a need to build their economy—you know, go down the list. The needs are so great, but also the opportunities are amazing. Such possibility of what could happen in tribal communities and Native American communities. I’d love for the historians to look back and say 2021 is the year that we finally started investing in our Native communities at the level that we were supposed to be all along. And that’s thanks to Secretary Deb Haaland joining together with an administration that is committed to that—joining together with a House of Representatives and a Senate that are willing to appropriate up the levels that are needed.

REESE: How important is your experience working with tribal governments and your understanding of Indian law?

LEGER FERNÁNDEZ: My colleagues elected me as chair of the Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples, even though I’m a freshman, because I have 30 years of experience working with Native American tribes. So, you know, that was a wonderful recognition that they wanted somebody who understood the issues and had that experience.

But I will say this: Because many of the members serving on the House Committee on Natural Resources do have tribes in their communities, they actually know about Native American issues. The first subcommittee hearing we had was the most nonpartisan hearing I’ve attended so far. We are in a very difficult moment in Congress right now, after January 6, and given QAnon and the intense divisions. But in the Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples, when we were talking about the needs and the problems and what we could do to fix them, you could almost not tell who was Republican and who was Democrat, based on their questions and based on their commitment to do something. I was really impressed, because I have been through many other subcommittee hearings on the American Rescue Plan, and on democracy reforms, and they have not been the same. So I think that there is a willingness among my colleagues to understand these issues. I’m very impressed by their respect for Native American issues.

ABLAVSKY: Well, that seems like a great place to end. I think we both share your hope that 2021 will be transformative in exactly the way you described.  SL