On August 27, Shawna Baker LLM ‘15, was sworn in as a justice for the Supreme Court of the Cherokee Nation, one of only three women to have served on the court. A former law professor and the founder of Tulsa’s Family Legacy & Wealth Counsel, a law firm that specializes in estate planning, Baker says that ensuring a bright future for the next generation is a principle that has shaped her career.
“Cherokee tradition teaches that every decision impacts the next seven generations,” says Baker. “With this in mind: I move with confidence that my ancestors opened doors of opportunity for me, and secondly, I have a duty to protect the legal rights and sovereignty of Cherokees seven generations in the future—which is an immense responsibility.”
Today, Baker balances this responsibility between two positions: her role with the Cherokee Nation and her work in private practice.
Baker has had a nontraditional route to the court. A first-generation college student, Baker originally thought that she would become a medical doctor, and studied biology at John Brown University in Arkansas. After being inspired by a film about the civil rights activist Medgar Evans, she developed a strong interest in the law, and spent three years concurrently earning a law degree and master’s degree in biological sciences from the University of Tulsa.
“My decision to pursue a masters in biology had more to do with my enjoyment of science than using it for my legal pursuits,” Baker says. “I have an overwhelming desire to take advantage of every occasion to expand my knowledge,” she says.
After law school, Baker began work as a litigation associate at Oklahoma firm Doerner, Saunders, Daniel & Anderson, where she specialized in family law. Spending much of her time on high net-worth divorce cases, Baker found she was interested in the issues surrounding the separation and protection of assets. She enjoyed helping clients plan for their futures at this critical juncture, she says, and enlarged her practice to include estate planning.
After three years at Doerner and a year practicing as a trial attorney, Baker returned to school, earning her LLM from Columbia Law School. Accepting an associate professorship at Florida Coastal School of Law, she taught civil procedure, estate planning, and family law. Two years into her stint at Florida Coastal, Baker was approached by a former Tulsa client who offered her a five-year contract to assist with an estate administration and the creation of a private charitable foundation, as well as planning multigenerational family trusts. “Seizing this unique challenge would broaden and strengthen my understanding of the intricacies of estate planning and elevate my skill set as a practioner and or professor” she says.
Working with the family estate, Baker says, she became intrigued by the tax issues she encountered. “When it came to decisions involving the sales of businesses or assets of a business, transfers of assets to trusts, and or gifts to the charitable foundation, every conversation centered on tax implications of the same,” she recalls. “And the [certified public accountants] tended to be men, and who inevitably told me what to do with no explantion and or alternatives. And I thought: ‘There must be options and what are the pros and cons of each?’ I wasn’t receiving the answers and or the guidance that made me feel at ease in my role as trustee, so I decided, ‘An education in tax was essential for informed decision-making, engaging in dynamic and collaborative conversations, and obtaining the respect of my male colleagues.’”
In 2013, Baker entered NYU Law’s Tax LLM Program, flying to New York from Tulsa for three days out of each week, so that she could maintain her responsibilities with the trust. “I knew that NYU Law’s LLM program was the best in the world, and if I was going to be working full time and taking classes, I should choose a program that would make the time count,” says Baker.
After graduating in 2015, Baker opened her own estate planning practice, Family Legacy & Wealth Counsel. “After I set up my practice, it became an utmost priority to give back to the Cherokee Nation which had invested in me—from school supplies as an elementary school student to scholarships in college,” says Baker. In 2018, then-Chief Bill John Baker first nominated Baker to the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court, and her nomination advanced through committee hearings, but was tabled by the Tribal Council. In the fall of 2019, she was nominated and confirmed to serve as a gaming commissioner for the tribe, a role she performed from November 2019 to August 2020. In August, Baker received her second nomination to the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court from present Principal Chief, Chuck Hoskin, Jr., and was confirmed by the Tribal Council.
Baker’s tenure on the court begins at a time when the Cherokee Nation’s legal system is taking on an expanded role. In July, the US Supreme Court decided McGirt v. Oklahoma, a landmark case that gives recognized Native American tribes’ jurisdiction over most crimes committed on tribal land. Federal crimes are still under the jurisdiction of the US government.
“To be confirmed immediately on the heels of the McGirt decision, to bear witness to the recognition of our tribal sovereignty, and to have a front row seat to the expanded role of the tribal courts, is elating and I am both privileged and honored to serve,” says Baker.
Baker, who is gay, also notes that part of her role is to be a representative for communities who have previously been underrepresented. “It is essential for Cherokee women and girls to see a woman sitting on the tribe’s highest court, and likewise it is important for members of the LGBTQ community to see that they, too, are can aspire to any profession and to the highest positions within the tribe,” says Baker, adding, “My coming of age in heart of the Cherokee Nation took place when Wilma Mankiller served as as our Principal Chief from 1985-1995 and her leadership and legacy impacts me to this day. I aspire to leave a legacy that empowers, encourages, and uplifts the next seven generations of our tribe.”
Posted November 18, 2020