Margaret Von Rotz '23 Will Fight For Indigenous Rights and Environmental Justice

Recent UC Law SF graduate Margaret Von Rotz ’23 plans to become an advocate for environmental justice and Indigenous rights in Washington D.C.

Margaret Palaghicon Von Rotz ’23 started law school with one goal in mind: to gain deep expertise in environmental law and Indigenous rights — knowledge that could help her fight to protect the planet and defend the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

At UC Law SF, she did just that. She explored novel approaches to boosting global biodiversity while studying abroad in London. She investigated sustainable fishing rules for a Pacific Island nation. And she worked with one of the nation’s leading environmental law experts to untangle complex water rights issues.

“My professional goal is to become an expert in Indigenous environmental rights and work with Indigenous communities to protect their rights and preserve their lands and cultures,” she said.

Von Rotz, who graduated with her JD in December, plans to take the bar exam in Washington D.C. and start practicing environmental law there. She intends to focus on Indigenous environmental justice, climate change law, and/or international human rights.

The legal field wasn’t always something she had in mind. Born in Honolulu and raised in Modesto, California, by her Indigenous Filipino mother and white American father, Von Rotz studied political science at UCLA before joining the Teach for America Corps. As a special education teacher in Oahu, she realized that many problems facing her students couldn’t be solved in the classroom alone. She worked with Micronesian students who fled homes on sinking islands, Filipino parents worried about their immigration statuses, and Native Hawaiians distraught by disputes over Indigenous land rights.

“I wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to better advocate for the people and communities I care for,” she said. “I thought, ‘Maybe law school is the answer after all.’”

She said she chose UC Law SF in part for its Legal Education Opportunity Program (LEOP), which admits and supports students who faced barriers to excelling in higher education. She was also looking for a law school with “excellent study abroad options.”

During her 3L year, she earned a dual LLM degree in environmental law and sustainable development from SOAS University of London, one of 19 foreign law schools where UC Law students can study abroad. She wrote her dissertation on strategies to prevent the displacement of Indigenous Peoples when pursuing biodiversity conservation goals.

As a 2L student in the Environmental Law Clinic, she analyzed laws and policies for small-scale fisheries in the island nation of Tonga and compared them to UN guidelines – a project made possible by a grant secured by the International Development Law Center at UC Law SF.

Additionally, she worked with Associate Dean of Research Dave Owen, one of the nation’s foremost environmental law scholars, as a research assistant exploring complex water rights issues. She said Owen helped her hone key research skills and taught her “how to think like a lawyer.”

During law school, she also worked as a summer law clerk with the firm Earthjustice in Washington D.C., led a public records request project for the National Lawyers Guild’s UC Law SF chapter, and served as Staff Editor of the UC Law Environmental Journal and Environmental Justice Co-Chair for the law school’s Environmental Law Association.

Von Rotz said she is especially thankful for supportive professors like David Takacs, who encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming an advocate for environmental justice and Indigenous rights. She said it’s a goal she’s particularly passionate about because of her heritage as an Indigenous woman from the Ifugao tribe in the Philippines.

“I care a lot about my community and the ways we are affected by climate change, so perhaps my biggest motivator throughout my time at UC Law and SOAS was knowing that the research I was doing would either make a difference or help me become the lawyer my community, and others like mine, need,” she said.