Not Just a Job—a Cause
Kostan Lathouris’ promise to represent tribal interests and sovereignty
Published in 2023 Mountain States Super Lawyers magazine
By Rebecca Mariscal on July 10, 2023
From a young age, Kostan Lathouris would join his grandmother Loretta to make the two-and-a-half hour drive from Southern Nevada to the Chemehuevi Reservation in southeastern California. There, they would sit in the back row of their tribe’s council meetings, listening as the agenda unfolded. After the meeting, the two would gather with family and debrief about the issues.
“I got my sense of civic duty and responsibility and integrity from her,” Lathouris says. “You show up, you attend, you participate and you advocate for what’s best for the people.”
Loretta taught him about the tribe’s history, something he didn’t have a lot of exposure to, even while living on the ancestral lands. “Without my grandmother, I wouldn’t have had that understanding,” he says. “And that’s really what helped me find my passion in life, which is advocating for tribal sovereignty.”
His grandmother served on tribal board and committees, too, and when Lathouris was old enough he followed in her footsteps. After an unsuccessful run for council, he was appointed to boards and commissions to address tribal issues, which often involved the law. “We would work with attorneys, but none of the attorneys were members of our tribe,” he says. “I thought it would be best if, as a tribal member, I went to law school and developed that knowledge, that understanding, the licensing requirements to go back and do work for my tribe. So that way it wouldn’t just be a job, it would be a cause.”
Launching his own firm was nerve-wracking, but he had his tribe’s attorney Lester Marston as a mentor. “What was really touching about it was just this understanding that he’s not going to be doing it forever, but he does really care about all of his clients and he wants to foster that growth from within the community,” he says.
Lathouris’ practice is focused on representing tribes, including his own, and protecting tribal interests. His work also involved developing laws and regulations for the tribe. “It really is nation-building,” he says. “Thinking about what represents the history of traditions and values of a unique group of people and how do we embody that into law.
“It’s really important that when we have such important roles within the community, that that would be built by somebody who is either from the community or understands and knows the community,” Lathouris says. “For me, at the end of the day, a court case isn’t just, ‘Oh, did we win? Did we lose? Did we get paid or did we not?’ It’s more about, ‘OK, if we lose, then this is going to have an impact on my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren.’”
One case involved a sheriff who was trying to enforce state laws against tribal members on the reservation. The county posited that part of the reservation wasn’t actually tribal land. Marston and Lathouris took the case to court and won, creating a new civil rights cause of action. In another case, they represented five tribes, including Chemehuevi, in a tribal-state gaming compact negotiation with the state of California. After the state asked for provisions unrelated to gaming, the tribes brought a lawsuit because the state, Lathouris says, conducted bad-faith negotiations. They are now seeking secretarial procedures with the federal government. “It was a really good case for tribes in California and across the country because it helped explain what the states can and cannot ask for as part of these compact negotiations,” he says. “States have been asking for too much in violation of tribal sovereignty.”
Tribal sovereignty has moved forward over the years, and Lathouris hopes that continues. “Sometimes progress is low, but there have been a lot of good improvements,” he says. “At the same time, I know that just because somebody has a right doesn’t mean other people are going to respect it.”
Despite the difficulties that can arise, Lathouris says his work is always rewarding. “You know that you didn’t just get a win or a client, but you protected the rights of an entire group of people who have struggled and suffered and been through so much.”
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