In the more than six years William Zueger served as chief tribal court judge for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, no council member ever approached him about cases in the court system. The retiring judge oversees a system independent of the tribal council, with law-trained judges and attorneys, with trained court personnel.
Contrast that with the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, which has a court system in “chaos,” according to Chairman Merle St. Claire. St. Claire says hundreds of cases are at risk of being dismissed because of missed time limits and the judicial board tasked with straightening out the situation has been served with restraining orders to stop them from reviewing cases.
Tribal chairmen from North Dakota and South Dakota aired issues with their criminal justice systems during a Thursday morning session at the Tribal Leaders Summit at the Bismarck Civic Center Exhibition Hall. The meeting included U.S. Attorneys from across the country, Department of Justice and Bureau of Indian Affairs officials and tribal officials.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s court system repeatedly was held up as an example of all that can go right in tribal justice. Zueger and Chairman Charles Murphy talked about the successes they’ve had and what has worked for them. Both said the court system’s independence has been key to keeping it going, providing due process and equal protection to the tribal members.
“We have pulled this off because we have a council that is absolutely behind us” in putting the system together, Zueger said. “Standing Rock intends to lead Indian Country by example.”
“I think that Standing Rock, and our court system and our law enforcement system, is doing a a great job,” Murphy said.
Mike Faith, vice chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and Sharon Two Bears, a tribal council member who chairs the judicial commission, echoed those statements.
“Without a strong separation of powers, your court system is going to go down,” Faith said. “Court systems can and will be strong if the governing bodies support them.”
Zueger has been retained to provide technical expertise to the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa also have visited the Standing Rock reservation, which straddles North Dakota and South Dakota. Murphy said the tribal council will replace Zueger, and the new judge will face referendum votes from the community.
But even on Standing Rock, there are problems. Murphy said a juvenile justice facility has been built and funded, but the tribe is waiting for the OK from federal officials to get it going. Additionally, a backlog in background checks means hiring new law enforcement officers takes more time than it should, he said. Two Bears said jurisdictional issues still hurt enforcement, especially of domestic violence, and funding always is a problem.
Two Bears pointed out that the federal government agreed through treaties and statutes to provide justice for the tribes, but the tribes currently have to compete for grant money to run some of their programs.
“We’re not serving the people we need to serve,” she said.
But the problems on Standing Rock seem to pale in comparison to the problems of other reservations in the region. St. Claire said a clerk of court came to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Tribal Council and said hundreds of cases were at risk of being thrown out because of time limits.
“It’s like my hair stood up, and I was so disgusted,” he said. “ At Turtle Mountain, the court system is in chaos.”
Roger Yankton, chairman of the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe, said the North Dakota tribes are increasingly opening their doors to each other to help deal with issues that are similar to all of the tribes. But Tex Hall, the chairman of Three Affiliated Tribes on the Fort Berthold Reservation, talked about issues his tribe has to deal with that are unlike those of any other tribes in North Dakota.
“We’re in the middle of an oil boom,” he said.
The reservation has had 10,000 additional people arrive because of oil development, and with the increased people has come increased crime, he said. Hall said methamphetamine, lack of jurisdiction over non-tribal members, and increased traffic offenses are some of the problems with which the Three Affiliated Tribes are dealing. He said they have built a jail, but now worry if it is big enough, and have enacted a civil code under which they can ticket nontribal members. Hall appealed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to station more agents on the reservation.
Robert Shepherd, chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, said his tribe’s reservation runs along an interstate that provides a straight shot to Texas. Because of that, he has heard that there are issues concerning prostitution and human trafficking affecting his tribe. More than anything, his tribe needs more funding to get programs in place to help deal with problems, he said.