The Six Hundred Million Dollar Man

Paul Frye wins big for the Navajo Nation  

Published in 2008 Southwest Super Lawyers — June 2008

As an engineer at an Atlanta packaging plant in the early 1970s, Paul Frye's eyes were opened to racism. African Americans were paid less than their white counterparts; discrimination was rampant. When Frye took a stand, he was chewed out by management. "I was soundly rebuffed when I tried to correct [the inequities]," says Frye, 60, from Frye Law Firm in Albuquerque. "So I decided to pursue it from a different angle."

He turned to the law, graduating from Harvard Law School in 1977. After a few months with the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project, he took his first job on the Navajo reservation in Crownpoint, N.M. There, he found his calling, defending the Navajo Nation against wrongful actions and government misconduct. "It was tremendously fulfilling, stimulating work," he recalls. "I really felt like I was making a difference."

Frye spent six years with DNA—People's Legal Services, providing free counsel to impoverished Navajos, then worked for the Navajo Department of Justice for two years. After 13 years at Nordhaus, Haltom, Taylor, Taradash and Frye and another three years at Rothstein Donatelli, Frye struck out on his own in 2003. "It's a big challenge," he says. "There are a lot of outsiders interested in exploiting the resources of the Navajo people and not much interest by the locals to protect their people."

Santa Fe attorney Richard Hughes, who hired Frye at Crownpoint, says his friend's unassuming manner is deceiving. "Paul is absolutely brilliant," Hughes says. "He seems very mild-mannered and very professorial in his approach, but he is one of the most tenacious bulldogs of a litigator I've ever known."

In 1983, Frye fought for Navajo landowners who lost their property in exchanges facilitated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He settled a case in 1997 that gave Navajos—not the U.S. government—rights to the minerals underneath their allotted lands. The government was found to have intentionally obstructed justice, he says.

Last year, Frye prevailed in his biggest case yet when the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled that the federal government violated the rights of the Navajo involving coal royalties. The ruling could mean $600 million for the tribe. The case has been litigated for 15 years—a long wait, but not all that unusual for the cases he encounters. Says Frye: "It shows the underlying problem with the federal government controlling resources of another people who have little political influence."

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