"I would tell anyone that, whatever it is you dream of doing, don’t let that dream go."
Justin Kover ’13 never thought he’d be a tribal law attorney and he never thought he’d stay in Thurston County. But now he works with four different tribes: he serves as the Nisqually tribal prosecutor and public defender for the Chehalis tribe and does conflict counseling for the Quileute tribe and housing work for the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe. His job requires sophisticated knowledge of many different areas of the law and the ability to work with tribal leaders, federal authorities, other lawyers and his clients.
“I always knew that I was going to be an attorney,” Kover says. “I took my sweet time about it, but it eventually happened. And since I was born Nisqually, once I started becoming an attorney, different cousins, elders and others said, ‘We need people like you.’ And it’s a good fit, because the thing about working in Indian country is that cultural competency is important.”
Kover’s journey to becoming a tribal law attorney started in a surprising way. After bartending and working other jobs, Kover got involved with politics and decided to run for office. It was at the age of 36 and during his campaign for the 22nd District of the Washington House of Representatives that he decided he needed to finish his education. He visited the Saint Martin’s campus in August—during the first week of classes—and asked Josefina Pilon, former assistant director of admissions, and Mary Law, the former registrar, if he could still enroll. According to Kover, Pilon and Law said that they would help him with the process. “They got me in,” Kover says. “I guess I was destined to become a Saint.”
At Saint Martin’s, Kover majored in political science with a minor in legal studies. He explained that he enjoyed the traditional feel of Saint Martin’s and the atmosphere of a Benedictine institution, and that he relished the fact that his classes challenged his beliefs. “The professors helped me learn how to communicate disagreements in a collegial way—and that is a real skill that I use every day in dealing with attorney,” Kover says. In fact, Kover explained that his advice to a new Saint Martin’s student would be to listen—because there’s often more than one strain of thinking on an issue. “If you take time to listen, you may hear something that will change your opinion.”
Kover found two mentors who helped him greatly during his time as a student: Fr. Kilian Malvey and Shawn Newman. “I met Fr. Kilian due to my religious studies requirement,” he says. “And when I came in, my finances were in question, but he actually made sure that I stayed in school—and that developed into a friendship that lasted the rest of my three years. With Fr. Kilian, I could seek personal counsel.”
Shawn Newman helped Kover cultivate his professional career. “He gave me the opportunity to be a paralegal,” Kover says. “He helped bring me into a circle that helped me with my internships. He was my first and primary mentor.”
After graduating from Saint Martin’s, Kover earned his J.D. from the University of Idaho College of Law and returned to Thurston County, where he set up his law firm, Kover Law, PLLC, and began to work with different tribes.
Kover talked about his legal work and highlighted what he likes most about his profession. He explained that, as a tribal law attorney, he has primary responsibility—his role as Nisqually tribal prosecutor is analogous to the prosecutor role in Thurston County. He explained that he participates in the process of building the law. “My great-grandmother was one of the authors of the Nisqually tribal constitution, so it’s like I get to continue building where it left off. I get to make the code and I submit that code to the tribal council, and they decide on it,” he says.
In addition, Kover said that the style of justice used by the tribes is different from what he often encounters in the state courts. “One of the other things I really like about being in Indian country is that there’s much more of a likelihood that we’re going to use restorative justice—which means that most of what I do is helping people access treatment: mental health treatment, chemical dependency treatment or domestic violence treatment,” he says. “Sometimes people have to go to jail, but most of the time, that’s not what’s called for.” Restorative justice focuses on rehabilitating the victim, the offender, and the wider community, whereas retributive justice—the style of justice practiced by most court systems in the U.S.—focuses on punishing the offender.
In reflecting on his own journey, Kover talked about the fact that, for a long period in his life, he had to let go of his goal of becoming an attorney, but he was able to resume his pursuit of that goal by making the right decisions. “I would tell anyone that, whatever it is you dream of doing, don’t let that dream go. Because if I can go back to school at the age of 36 and make it all the way to being an attorney, that’s not something special—that’s a result of good choices that anyone could make.” After pausing for a moment, Kover adds, “So I hope to see everyone make good choices.”