Katherine Mary Nepton (Photo: Courtesy of Katherine Mary Nepton)
Michigan has never had an indigenous justice on its Supreme Court, according to the state’s Supreme Court Historical Society.
Katherine Mary Nepton wants to be the first.
Last May, she received a pre-nomination for the state’s Supreme Court, the step before becoming an official candidate. But the 37-year-old Lansing attorney won’t learn until July 18 if she’ll make the ballot for the general election in November.
Nepton, who ran for the Michigan Senate as a Libertarian in 2018, said she can’t confirm which political party may nominate her. Her possible nomination is taking place the same day the Libertarian Party of Michigan will hold its Candidate Nominating Convention in Gaylord.
If she is nominated, Nepton could become the third indigenous person in the country to be serve on a state Supreme Court after Anne K. McKeig in Minnesota and Raquel Montoya-Lewis in Washington state. The latter two women were appointed in 2016 and 2019, respectively.
The number of indigenous judges at the federal level is also small, with only three in the country’s history, according to the Federal Judicial Center.
The only Native American among 900 federal judges in 2014 was Diane Humetewa in Arizona, according to the American Bar Association. Of the 1.2 million attorneys working in the country that year, a little over 2,600 were indigenous, according to a study from the National Native American Bar Association.
The possibility of serving on the Michigan Supreme Court is something Nepton never foresaw.
Nepton came from humble beginnings in which she worked at Wendy’s and Menards moving grass seeds to help pay for her law school tuition, she said.
For Nepton, the possibility of serving on the court is about more than making history, though the thought of “breaking the glass ceiling” also excites her.
“Less than 1% of indigenous people get clerkships, which are internships with judges,” said Nepton, who never had a clerkship. “If me running helps them, that’s my win. That’s why I’m running. I can do a lot for Michigan in that position than the one or two people I help with my firm.”
Fighting for victims of sexual assault
Nepton is a legally recognized member of a First Nations band, a migratory group who are primarily based north of Quebec in Canada.
Nepton grew up in Connecticut with her Montagnais father, Dennis, and her Irish-Scottish and Jewish mother, Mary, before moving to Lansing in 2010 to attend Cooley Law School and then set up her small estate-planning firm.
Life was never predictable for Nepton, whose parents fostered at least 17 children over the years. She shared her two-bedroom, one-bathroom house with 10 others at one point, Nepton said.
“Things get hectic, but you learn how to be flexible really quick,” she said. “My family is my center of gravity. I’d get so attached. It takes very little time for them to become yours.”
Some of the children were adopted by her parents, she added.
“They keep swearing they won’t be taking on anymore kids, but every couple of years, we end up with a visitor,” Nepton said.
Nepton learned how to interact with different people after having foster siblings who came from different backgrounds and experiences, including sexual assault from their biological families.
“It was normal for my 4-year-old sister to say, ‘I don’t like the dentist; I don’t like things in my mouth,” Nepton said. “At 15, I knew what that meant.”
Her understanding of those who were sexually assaulted is why Nepton worked as a victim’s advocate in her early 20s in 2006.
“I’d show up on scenes where an 80-year-old woman was raped, or a 3-year-old child was raped,” she said. “It was a good job, but it was draining.”
Nepton often helped people get into shelters and provided other resources. She also supported them at the hospital and in court, which is what she did for one woman after her husband struck her in the head with a hatchet, Nepton said.
“The husband bullied her in front of the judge,” Nepton said. “I’m like, ‘Wait, your honor – she hasn’t said how scared she is yet. The judge looked at me and growled because I’m not supposed to talk.”
But Nepton wanted to ensure the woman got a restraining order against the man who abused her.
At the end of the proceedings, the judge granted the woman’s restraining order and dismissed everyone, except Nepton.
“He said, ‘If you speak in my courtroom again, I’ll have you arrested. You can’t practice law without a law degree’,” she recounted. “I started studying for the LSAT that week.”
Indigenous culture from the U.S. to Canada
Ellie Fox met Nepton through mutual friends before working alongside her at Nepton’s law firm. The two soon became close friends.
“We went to Uganda on a mission trip together,” Fox said. “That bonded us. She is very passionate, loyal and is always thinking of others.”
The two visited orphanages, where Nepton often brought paints for the children to “make something beautiful,” Fox added.
The women have also discussed the experiences of indigenous people, considering Fox’s husband, Eric, belongs to the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve in Ontario, Canada.
Nepton has focused much of her adult life on learning as much about her roots as she can. She has regularly traveled to Canada and applied for her Indian card.
As an Indian-card carrying member of the Pekuakamiulnuatsh band — who are also known as the Montagnais people — Nepton is eligible to collect benefits from the Canadian government, which recognizes her as a member of her band.
But she doesn’t want to do that.
“It’s mostly because I am so white passing,” she explained. “I feel weird taking it. If I ever needed it, I’d reconsider my situation to stay alive.”
Nepton often thinks about her father, who is not white-passing. He had a “harder time” because of his darker skin, she said.
“My cousin and I were encouraged not to be involved in our culture. It was like, ‘Oh, good! You blend in better than we do’,” she added. “I try not to be angry.”
Instead, she focuses on the positive aspects of learning about her culture while engaging in the migratory traditions of her people on route to Canada.
“They can’t keep me out,” she said.
Contact LSJ reporter Kristan Obeng at [email protected] or 517-267-1344. Follow her on Twitter @KrissyObeng.
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