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Crookston Times - Crookston, MN
  • Judge: Tribal courts can incorporate culture, but need independence, due process

  • Tribal courts on the nation’s Indian reservations must make due process of law and independence hallmarks of their justice system, U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson told a gathering of judges and other tribal court personnel in Grand Forks on Thursday.
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  • Tribal courts on the nation’s Indian reservations must make due process of law and independence hallmarks of their justice system, U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson told a gathering of judges and other tribal court personnel in Grand Forks on Thursday.
    Tribes can and should incorporate such Indian cultural traditions as “peacemaker courts” and “talking circles,” Erickson said, and those features should be respected by people outside the tribes.
    But “if your courts are going to be what they need to be for your people,” he said, the principles of independence and due process have to be at center stage.
    Erickson, U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon and Neil Fulton, federal public defender for North Dakota and South Dakota, participated in a panel discussion Thursday as part of a four-day training session organized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Justice Services.
    Erickson cited several “fundamental aspects of due process” that tribal courts should embrace, including letting people know what the laws are in advance, keeping law codes up to date, ensuring that the law is predictable and applied consistently, and that there is a process for appeals.
    “What is disturbing to me now is the lack of a system for appeals in many of your courts,” he said.
    ‘A model’
    Purdon, who became U.S. attorney for North Dakota in 2010, has been involved in several high-profile cases in Indian country, including the ongoing child protection issue at the Spirit Lake Nation and “Operation Prairie Thunder,” which led to more than 20 arrests on felony drug charges at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation last year.
    But working with a professionally staffed tribal court at Standing Rock, independent of the Tribal Council, prosecutors were able to steer several young first-offenders to misdemeanor charges in tribal court, he said.
    Purdon also noted that, for the first time, one of the University of North Dakota Law School students gaining practical experience this summer through externships is working through his office but at the Standing Rock Tribal Court.
    He said a tribal court doesn’t have to be the mirror image of a state or federal court, and Standing Rock does handle some cases in a “peacemaker” manner, which can involve respectful conversation among disputing parties.
    Standing Rock’s system “is a model that can be replicated,” he said.
    Purdon’s remarks drew a response from Andy Laverdure, tribal judge for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, who said judges have come in from other jurisdictions and inappropriately tried to make changes.
    “They come into our court and they don’t understand our laws,” Laverdure said.
    Page 2 of 2 - Turtle Mountain chooses to license its own attorneys and requires judges to be enrolled members and living on the reservation.
    Purdon said he agreed that tribes need more Indian lawyers as judges, prosecutors and public defenders, trained in the law and familiar with local culture. “That’s the long-term solution,” he said.
    Fulton, who as chief public defender frequently faces Purdon or his assistants in federal court, said tribal and other local courts “are better able to be tailored to local needs, local tribal practices,” but “we’re all part of this shared, overlapping community (and) we have to have a legal code that is shared and public.”

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