Noah Smith-Drelich: Civil Liberties at Standing Rock

BYU Law was honored to host Noah Smith-Drelich, Academic Fellow at Columbia Law as part of the Law and Social Change lecture series. Professor Smith-Drelich worked as a staff attorney for the ACLU’s North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming offices and served as a law clerk to Judge Edmond E. Chang at the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and Judge Jay S. Bybee at the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Smith-Drelich addressed the right of private individuals to sue the government and explained how the exercise of this right helps maintain the balance between government interests and private interests and drives social change. To illustrate this, Smith-Drelich discussed Thunderhawk v. City of Morton, a class action suit related to the 2016–2017 Standing Rock Nation’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Smith-Drelich is lead counsel for water protectors focused on preventing the world’s water systems against contamination and members of the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Nations, who sued state and local officials challenging the closure of Highway 1806. “For some local residents, the public right-of-way was made available. But for tribal members and their allies, irrespective of the time of day or day of the week, it was not. This is the exact sort of policy that the Constitution is meant to guard against,” he said. The lawsuit alleges that the road closure violates the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments and the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution because it blocks the plaintiffs’ access to religious sites, businesses, and medical treatment.

Professor Smith-Drelich identified three main policy considerations supporting the right of private citizens to sue the government: compensation to redress wrongdoing, deterrence of future wrongdoing, and protection of individual rights and liberties. The plaintiffs in Thunderhawk hope to inhibit future civil rights violations and seek compensation for the significant damages brought about as a result of the road closure. “We expect through this lawsuit to amplify our plaintiffs’ and the broader community’s legitimate concerns over this plainly unconstitutional policy—and to obtain much needed redress.”

In his remarks, Smith-Drelich also announced that he would be joining BYU Law this semester as a visiting professor. His research and teaching interests focus on tort law, civil procedure, and health law.


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