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Madeline Phipps

Law student Joaquin Gallegos embraces opportunity outside the classroom

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Joaquin Gallegos

Joaquin Gallegos initially thought he was going to be a doctor or a dentist. After college, he started working with retired U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan (MBA ‘66) to support and advance policy related to Indian medical care. Thanks to his time there, he realized that working as an individual health care provider would limit his ability to promote widespread change.

“I got involved in the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and saw how law and policy influence on-the-ground medical care for the most vulnerable Americans,” he says. “After that experience, I knew I could use my talents to help on a broader level.”

Since he grew up in different states across the West and is from the Jicarilla Apache Nation and Pueblo of Santa Ana, coming to Denver Law was an easy decision. “DU has a well-known history with American Indians, and I think because of that history, the University is in a unique position to reflect and offer support to Native students that may not be [available] elsewhere,” Gallegos says.

Knowing he wanted to continue to study Indian policy, Gallegos also thought he would benefit from being in Denver because of its high number of federal agencies, many of which deal with Native affairs.

As a first-year law student, he began working on Native American issues right away by participating in DU’s Tribal Wills Project, in which law students travel to American Indian reservations to help tribal members draft wills, medical powers of attorney and burial instructions.

During his second year, Gallegos did an externship with Judge David Furman, Colorado Court of Appeals, supporting the first-ever state appellate court Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) division by determining ICWA compliance in complex dependency and neglect cases. “Judge Furman is an incredible jurist, in part, because he sees the benefit of compliance and understands why the act is so important to secure Indian families and elevate Indian tribes,” Gallegos says.

Gallegos continued to have an impact on Indian issues the summer after his second year, but this time from a different angle, working as Sen. Tom Udall’s legal fellow. As he was in his externship with Judge Furman, Gallegos says he was positively influenced by Sen. Udall’s example.

“It was an honor to contribute and learn from Sen. Udall and the rest of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs,” he says. “It was a distinctive experience because I was able to support oversight and see legislation created firsthand including all of the work it takes behind the scenes to get statutes enacted.”

Working with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs afforded Gallegos another unique opportunity, due to the bipartisan nature of the committee. “I was blessed to be able to navigate both sides of the aisle and to learn how to negotiate, agree and disagree, and ultimately, come to a place where you can form better solutions,” he says. “I think reaching across the aisle and collaborating does make better policy and law.”

After finishing a final externship last fall, this time with Judge Allison Eid of the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, Gallegos is able to reflect on the work he undertook outside the classroom during his career as a law student.

“All of these experiences were meaningful because they were real,” he says. “It wasn’t just busy work—to be able to touch a real case, and contribute your ideas and outlook, and determine how you think it should turn out under the law, and to learn from the clerks and the judges themselves was a rare look inside.”

Gallegos will draw upon his experience after he graduates this weekend when he returns to Judge Eid’s chambers as one of her judicial clerks. But first, he’ll thank his classmates and professors when he offers one of the student addresses at the law school’s commencement.

“A tree isn’t strongest when it stands alone; it’s only strong as a part of a forest,” he says.  “It’s been a privilege to learn from my colleagues. Even though I may disagree with them strongly at times, to have that mutual respect and learn from each other and gain different perspectives has been one of my favorite parts of DU. I’m excited to see what we all do next.”

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