Tribal courts in a pandemic mode

Patty Talahongva

Indian Country Today Newscast with guests Judge Meredith Drent and Nikki Campbell, executive director of the National American Indian Court Judges Association. Plus Mary Annette Pember on the anniversary of the 19th Amendment

Patty Talahongva

Indian Country Today

When the Indian Civil Rights Act passed in 1968 it required tribes to follow requirements that were similar to the Bill of Rights. 

Tribal courts were responsible to enforce the laws. To help tribes understand this new legal role, the National American Indian Court Judges Association was formed. 

NAICJA is a no-profit corporation. It has ten regions across the country and offers training and technical assistance through its National Tribal Justice Resource Center. 

Like every organization dealing with changes to national conventions due to the global pandemic, NAICJA it takings its annual convention to a virtual platform. 

To talk about the challenges tribal courts are facing in this pandemic, our guests are Judge Meredith Drent. She is the chief justice of the Osage Nation's Supreme Court. 

Judge Drent was first appointed to the Osage court in 2006 as an associate justice. In 2012 she became the chief justice. She is in her third term. 

Nikki Campbell is the executive director of the NAICJA. She is a former attorney and has experience litigating and working in all aspects of Federal Indian Law. 

Here are some comments from Judge Drent: 

"I believe that our first indication (of the pandemic) was talking to each other. We began to have conversations with each other about what is your court doing? What is the situation with your tribe?" 

"Courts tended to be the last entity to respond. At the federal and state level there were still state courts that were holding open court. People were still having to come in. Indian Country needed to respond a little bit more quickly than the federal and the state systems could. And so having these conversations with NAICJA were really important for judges to get together and to figure out a response."

"So majority of the judges, the first thing they did was we talked to our team members, our court personnel, because those are the people on the ground and they were the ones who said, you know we need to do something about this. We need to make sure that we're safe, that the people coming in here are safe and we coordinated a response with them."

"At the Osage Nation, we decided it would be best to close the court offices to the public. That's kinda the first thing we did. And then the second thing we did was make sure that we had a mechanism to accept pleadings and filings and that our judges were available to do telephonic hearings."

"At Osage we don't have video conferencing capability yet, but other tribes also had video conferencing. So they were able to put together these systems and conduct hearings by Zoom, by Skype. There's just a variety of platforms by WebEx."

"And it was all designed to make sure that people had their day in court, that they still had access to court. So I think that ended up being one of the main goals was not just a safety issue, but also an access issue to make sure that people could still use the court when they needed it."

"We first put out a notice at the facilities themselves, as people called in, they were being told that the offices were closed but that we can still assist."

We talked to the judges about how they wanted to handle their trial court cases. And then the clerks got to work on notifying the parties that this is what we were going to do. We made sure that we notified the remainder of the nation. So we told our I.T. people who kind of put it out there on the website and let the rest of the nation's government system know that this is how the court was going to operate."

"And we were able to get the word out to our service area, that the way we were doing business has changed, but our availability has not changed."

"We knew that there would be a lot of inquiry about how courts were handling this. And that's one of the great things about NAICJA, it's one of the great things about Indian country is that we have the ability to turn to each other and say, 'What are you all doing? How can we help? What resources can we share? What information can we share with each other?' So having that large response to these rapid response seminars was great."

NikkiBorchardtCampbell_ED-NAICJA
Nikki Borchardt Campbell, executive director, National American Indian Court Judges Association.

Here are some comments from Nikki Campbell:

"Early on, we had some discussions with our board of directors and steering committees. And from that we had a virtual talking circle and we invited tribal courts from all across the country to discuss emerging problems, court closures, continuation of operations, which led to our rapid response webinars series to try to address some of these issues as they were ongoing."

"So those are all available on our website but we are still seeing that continuation of those backlog issues, the access to court issues. And we're hoping to be able to respond to those through our conference, specifically a lot with our courts and also with trying to help our court staff catch up on the technology side of things as well"

"We first and foremost wanted to ensure the health and safety of our tribal court staff and the individuals who are coming into the courts as Meredith said. So, in determining whether or not to keep courts open or to reopen a lot of our courts our judges have been conferring with, of course the CDC guidelines, but if available with tribal health, if there's an epidemiologist on staff, they've been conferring with epidemiologists, they've been talking to each other."

"They've been implementing those types of things like face coverings, plexiglas and really trying to be creative with the resources available to ensure the health and safety of not only the court staff, but the public."

"We would like for all courts to have the ability to have things like video conferencing but there are certain limitations as a result of most of our tribal courts and most of our tribal communities not having broadband access and access to internet. So yeah, while we would love for more technology in the court, in all of our tribal courts, we know that that's not available."

"That was actually one of the first things that we discussed in early March, was that we were looking at court orders for release for several different tribes especially where they had county agreements to release those non-violent offenders from detention. And so there were various creative things like home arrest. They were looking at holding some of the more violent offenders in incarceration but otherwise yes we were seeing that with the right communities."

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Mary Annette Pember, Indian Country Today

Here are some comments from Mary Annette Pember:

"It was part of an investigation I was doing about Catholic Indian boarding schools and it was late at night, I was looking at these congressional documents from 1926 and my grandmother's name Cecelia Rabideau jumped out at me." 

"I learned that she was described as the chairman of the League of Women Voters. She had gone to actually defend her brother who had been jailed and to find out about the backstory of that."

"It became kind of a big issue and a representative from Wisconsin took it up. So I wanted to look into that a little further and did reach out to the League of Women Voters and found out that Bad River was actually the location of the very first Native American League of Women Voters which was very exciting. And apparently my grandma was actually the chairman. So that was so exciting."

"Cecelia died actually, before I was born, she was only 57 years old."

"I know my grandma was a very good cook. She made wonderful pies, specialty was rhubarb pie, but that's the only thing I ever knew about my grandma. And it was just sort of the shame. I didn't really find out even the whole story as to why she abandoned the family and it was so poignant to me that she had to make that kind of choice." 

"So it's just a marvelous gift to be able to learn this about grandma and her strength and desire to utilize her newfound rights as a citizen and her ability to as an enfranchised woman to help her family and help her community."

"What's very interesting is of course all of the people in Bad River, we call it medicine river they're all proud. And it turns out my cousin who would be the great niece of Cecelia . She is currently the president elect of the local League of Women Voters. So people are very excited about that and they're having a display in the town." 

Also in the newscast, Deputy Managing Editor Jourdan Bennett-Begaye has the latest positive COVID-19 test numbers in Indian Country. 

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