Sonosky, Marvin J.
SONOSKY, MARVIN J.
Marvin J. Sonosky's legal work on behalf of Native Americans resulted in victories in Congress
and the courts. Sonosky championed Indian causes during his long career as an attorney, representing several tribes. His single greatest accomplishment was winning the Black Hills case, a 24-year legal odyssey in which the Sioux nation asserted its claim to sacred ground taken by the federal government a century earlier.
Born on February 20, 1909, in Duluth, Minnesota, Sonosky completed his undergraduate and law studies at the University of Minnesota and was admitted to the state bar in 1932. He practiced briefly in Duluth before moving to Washington, D.C., in 1937 to join the justice department. He spent more than a decade as a special assistant to the attorney general in the Justice Department's Lands Division.
In 1951 Sonosky returned to private practice with a focus on Indian law. Over the next three decades, he would successfully represent the Assiniboin, Shoshone, and Sioux tribes in a number of cases involving land claims against the federal government. His work went beyond trial practice; his clients were often stymied by discriminatory federal laws, especially in the area of court jurisdiction, and Sonosky's efforts helped to remove barriers that prevented their full use of the federal courts.
Sonosky played a leading role in the effort by the Sioux to reclaim the Black Hills of South Dakota. The case had a long history: the Sioux had temporarily ceded title to the land to the federal government in 1876 under controversial circumstances. They began attempting to reclaim the land in the 1920s, but legal mismanagement stalled their claim until the late 1950s, when the Sioux turned to Sonosky and his colleague Arthur Lazarus.
Sonosky and Lazarus spent 24 years fighting the case in various courts, Congress, and even the White House. Legislative reform was necessary for their victory, and they helped change the Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946 (Ch. 959, § 1, Pub. L. No. 79-726 [omitted from 25 U.S.C.A. § 70 on termination of the commission on September 30, 1978, pursuant to Pub. L. No. 94-465, sec. 2, 90 Stat. 1990 (1976)]) as well as bring about passage of the Indian civil rights act of 1968 (Pub. L. No. 90-284, tit. II, 82 Stat. 77 [codified at 25 U.S.C.A. §§ 1301–1303 (1988)]).
Their success was mixed. In 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a judgment for the Sioux in the amount of $105 million (Sioux Nation v. United States, 602 F.2d 1157 [Ct. Cl. 1979], aff'd., 448 U.S. 371, 100 S. Ct. 2716, 65 L. Ed. 2d 844 ). Although the amount represented the largest judgment ever won by Native Americans against the federal government, the Sioux refused it, preferring return of the land to a monetary award. The attorneys, who had accepted the case on a contingency fee basis, received a $10 million legal fee from the federal Court of Claims.
In 1976 Sonosky established the firm of Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, and Endreson in Washington, D.C. As one of the leading firms specializing in Indian law, its work includes lobbying, general tribal practice, mineral and natural resources issues, and representation of tribes before federal agencies. In 1982 Sonosky endowed the Marvin J. Sonosky Chair at the University of Minnesota. He remained active at his firm until his death on July 16, 1997, in Washington, D.C.
Greenya, John. 1986. "The Long Case." Los Angeles Daily Journal (March 21).
Review of Black Hills White Justice: The Sioux Nation vs. the United States. 1775 to the Present, by Edward Lazan. 1992. Yale Law Journal 101.
Sylvester, Kathleen. 1983. "Indians Win New Rights in Court." National Law Journal (May 23).
Zlock, Tracy N. 1996. "The Native American Tribe as a Client: An Ethical Analysis." Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics 10 (fall).