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San Carlos’ Chief Judge Moves Bench Trials Outdoors

SAN CARLOS, Ariz.—There’s an outdoor jail known as “Tent City” in Phoenix but an outdoor court for bench trials? Mostly unheard of until two weeks ago when Chief Tribal Judge Edd Dawson decided to give new meaning to “Open” court on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. The Dennis Titla Sr. Justice Center, an old Bureau of Indian Affairs office building, has only two courtrooms and on this day both were unavailable.

“There was a jury trial in the main courtroom with a visiting judge and the other courtroom is for juvenile court. They (prosecutors and public defenders) wanted to continue cases for another week but that presents a problem as we already have an overload of cases scheduled the following week. Were there other options? Not really,” said Dawson who made the call to set up court behind the courthouse under a large tree.

Tables and chairs were set up for the judge, court clerk, prosecutor and public defender. Defendants, including inmates in orange suits, and witnesses sat on benches and folding chairs waiting their turn. The weather, while a pleasant 70 degrees, bode well for those in the shade but the judge, an Anglo with very fair skin and donning a black robe, sat exposed to the sun for several hours. “Someone jokingly said I was the only red man out there,” said the judge with a smile.

Unable to recall a time when court was held outdoors led to a quick Internet search. Two prominent stories from the early 1900s popped up for “court held outdoors” and “court held outside.” A January 11, 1918 trial in San Francisco was held outdoors to limit exposure to a highly communicable disease. The other in July 2, 1925 in Tennessee was held outside due to excessive heat indoors!

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Some like Kyle Hood, 23, didn’t mind appearing before the judge under blue skies but there was one concern. “I was hoping the heat wouldn’t get to the judge because I don’t want him getting grouchy. I want a fair trial!” said Hood.

Others felt uncomfortable about the whole thing. “It’s embarrassing,” said Sue Russell who giggled as she took a picture with her cell phone. Russell, 22, was attending a hearing in juvenile court but came outside to see the makeshift court for herself. “It’s weird. I’ve never seen anything like this. We should be having it inside.”

During his seven-year tenure Judge Dawson applied for federal grants to no avail for a new building and upgrades. According to the judge even a 2007 report by Coochise Consulting, LLC showing the facility as being inadequate couldn’t help secure the desperately needed funding. Just last month the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the federal government needed to do more to support tribal courts. It came to this conclusion after conducting interviews at 12 tribes in four states including Arizona.

Earlier this year Rep. Paul Gosar, a freshman congressman in Congressional District 1, took a tour of the San Carlos facility at the request of the San Carlos tribal council. There’s one problem. Unlike his predecessors Ann Kirkpatrick and Rick Renzi who pushed for earmarks, Gosar by his own admission is “not an earmark guy.” Neither are Arizona’s Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl. Earmarks, or money included in a bill by a lawmaker to benefit a home-state project or interest, are what some tribal courts in South Dakota may benefit from thanks to its Senator Tim Johnson. Sen. Johnson has asked for $1 million earmarks for each of three tribes – the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Justice System, Oglala Sioux Tribal Law Enforcement Enhancement and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Justice System. Earlier this year Gosar told a Flagstaff group asking for money the best he could do was send a letter of support to help their cause.

On top of that, President Barack Obama’s proposed budget cuts doesn’t bode well for tribes let alone tribal justice systems which means “open” courts may become the norm on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. If the two courtrooms are tied up again in the future, Judge Dawson says he won’t hesitate to whip out his sunscreen and head back to the big tree outside.