Galanda Broadman, PLLC
The United States has agreed to pay $35,000 to settle judicial and police misconduct claims brought by two Native Americans against a Nooksack judge and several members of the Nooksack police force.
In July 2019, Nooksack elder George Adams, 72, was assaulted and battered by three Nooksack officers at his home in Everson after they arrived one morning to arrest his daughter. With the family’s lawyer on speakerphone, George Adams asked the officers under what pretense they were there to arrest Elile Adams, 36.
The officers refused to answer his question and escalated the encounter without any provocation. A Nooksack officer kneed George Adams in the groin before throwing him against a concrete stairway along with two other officers. He was handcuffed and arrested for obstructing a public official and resisting arrest.
The police violence was captured on the three Nooksack officers’ body cameras.
The Nooksack officers proceeded to also arrest and handcuff Elile Adams before booking her into the Whatcom County Jail, pursuant to a warrant issued by then Nooksack Tribal Court Chief Judge Ray Dodge. In the officers’ body camera footage, Elile Adams’ then five-year old daughter is seen in her pajamas, watching her mom's arrest.
The warrant for Elile Adams’ arrest arose from a child custody proceeding that Dodge himself initiated against her after she sought a domestic violence protection order from the Tribal Court in 2017. At that time, the U.S. rejected Dodge’s authority to take any action or issue any orders as a Nooksack judge. Elile Adams protested Dodge's lack of authority and the Tribal Court's lack of jurisdiction over her child, but Dodge refused her pleas.
In August 2019, the Adamses filed a Whatcom County Superior Court tort lawsuit against Dodge and the Nooksack officers. Dodge countersued the Adamses for libel after George Adams called him a “pretend judge” on Facebook, and Elile Adams publicly stated “Dodge has made my life a living nightmare ... So much so that I have sought asylum and protection from him in the Lummi Nation.”
Elile Adams obtained citizenship with the Lummi Nation for herself and her daughter in April 2019, after relinquishing each of their Nooksack enrollments earlier that year. By then, Dodge had issued no less than twenty court orders against Elile Adams, and had her criminally charged for violation of his child custody orders.
Pursuant to a funding arrangement that requires the federal government to defend Nooksack law enforcement actors from tort claims, the United States interceded in the state court lawsuit last year and removed the matter to a U.S. District Court in Seattle. The U.S. Department of Justice reached the settlement after obtaining and reviewing the body camera footage of the Adamses’ July 2019 police encounters and arrests.
The settlement also resolved Dodge’s libel claim with prejudice and without any payment or admission of wrongdoing by the Adamses. Dodge was recently relieved from his duties as Nooksack Chief Judge.
“No amount of money will ever buy the lost years of not being heard, being sued by a judge, being criminally charged, and hauled to jail for a bogus charge,” Elile Adams said in reference to the $35,000 settlement. “I did what any mother would do…protect my child, even if I was going to get charged for it, go to jail, or get sued.”
The settlement brings closure to a legal saga that also involved Elile Adams seeking a writ of habeas corpus from the U.S. Supreme Court. Soon after her arrest in 2019, she sought a federal court order granting her unconditional freedom from Nooksack's criminal restraints against her liberty. Two days after she sought Supreme Court review this past May, the tribe dismissed the criminal charges, mooting her federal habeas corpus request.
Unable to “wrap [her] head around the fact that [she] went all the way to the Supreme Court,” Elile Adams hopes her fight might inspire other Indigenous women who are abused by tribal actors “to stand up for what is right.”
George Adams calls what happened to him and his daughter at Nooksack a blatant abuse of tribal sovereignty—a power that he explains is “bestowed upon tribal governments from its members; not the other way around.” Calling for enforceable federal civil rights protections on tribal lands, he rebukes tribal politicians who “hide behind the cloak of sovereignty…while tribal courts and officers hide behind the black robe and shiny badges.”
The federal government’s settlement with the Adamses is the latest black eye for the Nooksack Tribe, which has compromised its justice system by firing judges, disbarring opposing lawyers, and denying tribal members access to justice over the last decade since a tribal council faction commenced to disenroll over 300 tribal members.
There is hope that new Nooksack Chairwoman RoseMary LaClair might attempt to bring peace to Nooksack, after she made a campaign promise to meet with those facing disenrollment. Until then, Nooksack remains a cautionary tale of tribal self-determination. In reference to Nooksack's broken rule of law and police violence, Indigenous governance scholar David Wilkins laments that the tribe has “degraded into a state of an anarchic nation.”