From the Rebuilding Native Nations Course Series: "What Strong, Independent and Legitimate Justice Systems Require"

Native Nations Institute

Native leaders and scholars discuss what Native nations need to do to create strong, independent and culturally legimate justice systems.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Fineday, Anita. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. August 5, 2010. Interview.

Jorgensen, Miriam. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Spearfish, South Dakota. Apil 19, 2011. Interview.

LaPlante, Jr., Leroy. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. August 12, 2010. Interview.

Laverdure, Donald "Del". Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. August 12, 2010. Interview.

McCoy, John. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 18, 2009. Interview.

Tatum, Melissa L. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. January 25, 2012. Interview.

Vaughn, Rae Nell. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 15, 2009. Interview.

Yazzie, Robert. "Why the Rule of Law and Tribal Justice Systems Matter" (Episode 3). Native Nation Building television/radio series. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy and the UA Channel, The University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. 2006. Television program.

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

“I think a strong, independent tribal justice system, first of all, is tribal. I think that it should be tribal in the sense that it knows how to deal with tribal issues. And yet it’s diverse enough to handle and adjudicate all matters that come before it. I think you should have competent judges. I think that you should have strong advocacy for clients. And it must have a way of measuring its performance. But yeah, a strong tribal system should be tribal in nature. In other words, what I mean by that is, it shouldn’t just be a boilerplate replication of what a state court looks like and promulgate those laws. But those laws should be traditional in nature. It should reflect our customs. It should reflect our customary law, our traditional laws, and we should know how to deal with those and inject those viewpoints into our decisions.”

Melissa L. Tatum:

“I don’t think I could draw you a picture of a strong and independent court system, because they can take so many different shapes and many different forms. I can tell you what the support beams are, and then the way the drywall and the paint and the decorating is going to be different. And the support beams may be put together in a different way to form shapes for different tribes. But you’ve got to have an independent judiciary, you’ve got to have the funding to be able to resolve the disputes, you’ve got to have someone to make a connection between the past and the present, and you’ve got to have the capacity to solve the disputes the community brings before you in a way that everybody accepts as legitimate. And that’s what a strong and independent court system looks like. Now that may be a peacemaker system, that may be an Anglo-style adversarial court, that may be a hybrid of the two. That may be, you know, the court may be in a single-wide trailer; the court may be in the most absolutely beautiful, technologically up to date building. But it can take a wide variety of forms. Its function is what’s critical.”

Miriam Jorgensen:

“I think that we oftentimes trip immediately to saying, ‘Oh, that justice system has to be a sort of Western-style court system.’ And in fact, I almost always find myself using the word court. But, it doesn’t have to be a court with the judges and robes and the bench and all that kind of stuff. It has to be a dispute-resolution mechanism that’s effective and efficient and transparent about the way decisions are made, and that can hold people to those decisions. But it can be as indigenous as you like. It just has to be one that works to meet those standards.”

Donald “Del” Laverdure:

“I think it needs independent decision-making authority without political interference, first and foremost. Secondly, I think it needs to be fully funded. My experience among tribal justice systems -- and I have served on a handful and also helped create a number -- is that they need the funding to have the staff, the clerks, the recorders, the people keeping track of the files. It’s absolutely critical for all of the day-to-day functioning. The third thing, I think, for them is to apply that nation’s law according to how they view it. And I think the Navajo Nation really has emerged as a leader in fundamental or Diné  law in their statutes, interpretation of those, and it’s widely accepted by the community. I think we’re making steps there. It’s always two steps forward, one step back. And I think if we have all of those markers that it’ll be the institution that we need to be independent and stable.”

John McCoy:

“They have to be independent. They have to be independent and not worry about political consequences. So consequently at Tulalip, the court system comes in, here’s the budget. So normally, without hesitation, they say, ‘Okay, here’s your money.’ They can’t tell them how to spend it; they just give them the money. And then the court administration then takes care of the budget. So you have to give them that autonomy.”

Anita Fineday:

“Well, you need to have a few things. Number one, you need to have independence from the tribal council, from all elected officials, whoever they may be. And this is a struggle in Indian Country, as we all know. It routinely happens that tribal judges are replaced if they issue a decision that is really unpopular. And so the tribal court needs to be independent, and it needs to have adequate funding. That’s the other thing that happens is I’ve seen tribal councils say, ‘Well, we’re not going to get rid of the judge, but we’re going to cut off all funding to the tribal court.’ So no one is getting paid any longer. So you need to have an independent stream of funding. You need to be independent of the elected officials. And you need to not fear that if you issue a decision that’s unpopular, that you’re going to lose your job.”

Rae Nell Vaughn:

“It’s just so important that when we have issues that come up through tribal court systems, that as a judiciary you’re giving well thought-out opinions, and it’s ironclad so that you can’t -- it won’t be unraveled. And there you go, you’ve lost more jurisdiction.”

Robert Yazzie:

“When Navajos go to court, they expect certain things to happen. One is to say [Navajo word], which means ‘my mind will become at ease’ when this problem that I have is addressed. And people look for a satisfied result. And so when people feel confident with the court system, especially establishing a relationship with the judge, knowing that the judge’s role will be carried out to bring peace to the problems at hand.

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