NNI Indigenous Leadership Fellow: Rae Nell Vaughn (Part 2)
Vaughn, Rae Nell. "NNI Indigenous Leadership Fellow (Part 2)." Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 22, 2009. Interview.
"So the term 'Choctaw self-determination' is the motto of pretty much everything that the Mississippi Choctaws do. And I was curious to learn from you: how exactly does the tribal justice system, the court system that you were for a long time a part of, a reflection of that motto 'Choctaw self determination'?"
Rae Nell Vaughn:
"Self-determination, in and of itself, has been key for Mississippi Choctaw. It's been the driving force of who the tribe has ultimately become, this very progressive tribe providing so many different services and outlets for the people, but it's so much more than that. It comes down to the very individual Choctaw member as to how you guide the people individually towards their destiny of being a successful people. There have been a number of areas in which self-determination has been very evident, one being the court system in and of itself. Within the court system, there could have always been the easier way of just allowing the tribe to go with state rule actually and just using the state system. What's the point of setting up your own court system? But just the mere exercise of sovereignty and having the ability to create your own laws and to develop your own court system is the very essence of self-determination and within that allowing your tribal members themselves serving in different capacities as a judge, as a bailiff, as a law enforcement officer, even as an attorney again only further defines for tribes and this tribe in particular self-determination. It's the mere exercise and expression of it."
"So back in 1997, the court system underwent a significant revamping and strengthening, and it came at a critical juncture where Mississippi Choctaw had grown tremendously since the "˜60s and early "˜70s, particularly with their economic development initiatives and had come to this point where it said, "˜If we want to continue growing, we've got to do this.' Can you talk a little bit about that, and are you of the opinion that Choctaw could not have become what it has today if it were not for this strong and independent court system?"
Rae Nell Vaughn:
"I think that the continuing development and evolution of the court system was key to every aspect of the tribe in regards to its development. The tribe in its forward thinking knew that with the growth of the population, which was very dramatic, it jumped significantly after 1994 once the gaming doors opened of our casinos and then we began generating more revenue and our population, the membership increased dramatically. Currently, we're at close to 10,000 members versus back in the early 19th century when we were less than 1,000, so it's been a very significant jump. And with the increase of population obviously comes with it social issues, social ills, offenses committed against property and people, civil matters, civil issues as the tribe in its economic growth begins venturing further into business, and those issues of litigation with those businesses ultimately will land within the well of this court. So because of that, it was key for -- and I believe was the government's vision -- to strengthen and provide to the court system the ability to execute justice properly and at a much higher standard. And again, the tribe could have just said, "˜Let's just follow the state motto. Let's just hire state judges and let's just go from there,' but they didn't. They knew again -- going back to self-determination -- how key it was to have tribal members sitting on that bench. Granted, the bench itself was very diverse. You had non-Indians, you had non-tribal members, and then of course tribal members sitting on this very large diverse bench, and the ability to have that exchange for those who weren't members of the tribe to teach them Choctaw customary law, culture, and of the people and of the community and the area, and how important and significant it is to just maintain that body of knowledge and it continues today, which I'm very grateful for."
"So with respect to this, 1997 -- that seemed to be the watershed year in which the tribe made a very calculated decision to say, "˜In order to manage this growth, in order to continue to grow, we have to expand the powers, the jurisdiction and the authority of our court system, equip it with what it needs to be able to carry out justice,' as you say. So there's an expansion in terms of the types of cases it takes on, in terms of the kinds of skill sets that it's bringing into the court system, etcetera, but also during that time there was a concerted effort underway to more fully incorporate Choctaw values as you mentioned into the court system. Can you talk a little bit more about that and specifically discuss this project that you were involved with, which was documenting those core values in the form of oral histories provided by your elders? Maybe talk a little bit about how they've worked to inform the incorporation of those values into the court system."
Rae Nell Vaughn:
"I believe that it was a lot of hands of fate that guided me into where I ultimately ended up serving as a judge, which I was very honored and humbled by being asked to do this. I worked in various areas within tribal government of the 23 years that I worked. I worked in the health area, in education and in the cultural center area, and all of these experiences, I believe, prepared me for that. So having said that, giving you that backdrop, once I got into the position as judge and ultimately serving as the principal judicial officer for the system, there were different projects that I felt would help us retain a lot of what we and who we are as tribal people in regards to what this thing was called, 'customary law.' Well, what is it? For the common person on the street looking at the general provisions of the codes, it's there, but what is it/. It wasn't tangible; it was an abstract thought, customary law. So how do we make that more concrete? And so with that I began looking at different models. Well, what's out there in Indian Country? What information has been generated and collected for the respective tribes? And I saw different models and I thought, "˜We can do this. We can do this here at Choctaw.'
And so we initiated what we call the Indigenous Law Project and this project basically...the original objectives of this project was to gather as much information from our elders concerning customary law, issues such as probate, disciplining of children, the structure of our society and how important -- being a matrilineal society -- those duties and responsibilities of individual members of the family and how important those things played in the role of the family, but not only the family, the community and the tribe as well. Now we weren't as fortunate as a number of the tribes west of the Mississippi to have been able to maintain and continue practices of traditional ceremonies and clan systems and things of that sort. However, there were few aspects that we continued to carry on that we needed to document. Now it goes against what normal translation would be in the sense of oral history, passing it down orally from one generation to another. Unfortunately, society has given us other opportunities with technology, unfortunately and fortunately, because the unfortunate thing is that we're not practicing this oral history, we're not sitting down and talking as a family. We're too busy texting one another half of the time. And so it seemed to me that the best thing to do is put the technology...benefit from this technology and use it. And so we initiated a number of interviews for, I believe, about three summers of just collecting interviews. And what I got away from the information or the exchange was how willing the elders were wanting to sit down and talk. Of course it was warming them up, putting them in front of a camera and the mic and all of this and of course we'd ham them up a little bit. "˜Well, you're going to be on TV,' and all of that. "˜You're the next movie star.' And so once they warmed up and you began asking questions, all of the outside distractions faded away and they went right into it and to be able to go back and pull all those memories and all of what they have been taught, that sense of pride of, "˜I'm proud of who I am and this is who...this is what I was taught and I'm so glad I'm able to teach you.' Now I did get my hand slapped at one point because I was asking my auntie, my great aunt, a question and she said, "˜You should know this.' I got put in my place real quick. "˜You should know this,' and as I sat there and I thought, of course I sat up a little straighter after she did that, but after I thought about it, I said, "˜Yeah, I do.' I had to go back and think because we weren't having that sit-down and we weren't having those opportunities without all the other distractions going on, of just sitting down and talking. And that's what we don't do anymore.
And so I say all that to say this: we got a wealth of just raw information, just conversations, and then...so what do we do with this? We begin extracting values out of each of these interviews and we're able to construct this circular...and we put it in a...we intentionally put it in a circular model because it's never ending. Our core values are never ending. And we developed about 12 core values and I can't think of each of them right now, but I do have that information, but it all centered around the family. It all centered around the family and one of the other objectives that I had...I had another project within the cultural center was, "˜Well, okay what do you do with information? How do you get this information across to the audience, the target audience you're shooting for here?' And so I looked at this project two-fold. One for the practitioner, the attorney that's coming into the court who may be arguing a child custody case and not understanding the matrilineal society rules as it were. And so there's a document that he can cite as he argues in court. Of course obviously -- if all things are equal with both parties -- society dictates...the tribe dictates traditionally that children would go into the custody of the mother. Discipline would continue with both sides, but the mother's brother, the uncle of the children also stepped in and took a role as well, whether it be a division... dissolving of a marriage or just within disciplining children. And so having that documented in a court opinion is very significant because it lays out for you customary law and it's there in black and white.
But the other objective, again two-fold, is how you use this information and we're always looking at... again, and it just... everything interweaves with one another, self-determination, and it's getting this information to the younger generation. "˜Well, how do we do that? How do you use this tool and where do you use it?' The most ideal place to use it was within the school system and we're fortunate enough to have a tribal school system. And so the next phase of this project was to develop a curriculum to incorporate this information into the school system starting at the very earliest level of elementary school, because you're in elementary school pledging allegiance to the flag -- to the [United States of America] flag. You're learning about presidents, you're learning about government, you're learning as you move along civics and your duty and responsibilities as a citizen of the United States of America, but what about your duties as a tribal member, talking about the importance of voting, the responsibilities of a leader, as chief, your council? Do you know exactly how many members are on your council? Do you know exactly how many and why there are three council members in one community versus only one in another? These are the things that need to go hand in hand with the instruction of state government, of local government and how state, federal and tribal all interplay with one another, and we don't have that, unfortunately, across the boards, across Indian Country really, you really don't have that. So my intention was using Indigenous law, this project, to relay what customary law is, but also incorporating information about government, tribal government, the judiciary. Because if you look at tribal government, Choctaw tribal government, we are so different from the U.S. government because we're a two-branch government. And, well, why is that? And then it goes into the IRA [Indian Reorganization Act] constitution, it just...it just dominoes in information. And that's what's key. And so that was one of the projects that I initiated there as well.
Another project I initiated, again, and it interweaves with self-determination is the internship program, which was very important for us because we were looking at...with every tribe you want to have as many tribal members in professional positions as possible. We're a membership of almost 10,000 and there's only so many Choctaws and not everybody wants to be a doctor, not everybody wants to be an attorney, not everybody wants to be an accountant, but you also needed to provide a place for career exploration to say, "˜Well, maybe I might not want to be a judge, but I might want to be a probation officer or I may want to be a paralegal or I may want to be an attorney or I may want to be a judge or I may want to be a court administrator,' but giving them that opportunity. So I set up this project during the summer and it was a three-tier project. It started with your...the high school students, your juniors and seniors. We partnered with Boys and Girls Club. They have a leadership component to it called 'Keystone Club' and we opened it up to those individuals if they were interested and then of course to just the general population of that age group if they were interested to come in.
And we also had the second tier, which were college students who may be interested, and of course opening it also up to law students just to have an opportunity to see Indian law in action at the local level. It was a 13-week project. I partnered with a program called Youth Opportunity Projects with the tribe, which helped us with funding because money's always an issue and kids need money for the summer. So that was an incentive. We also partnered with a number of universities, Millsaps College, Southern [University], Mississippi State [University], Bellhaven [University] for those students, Memphis State University. For those students who were coming in at the college level, I didn't want them to waste this experience, and if there was an opportunity to utilize the internship program for them as well to gain benefit, I welcomed that. But also it provided us this window of opportunity to educate even the colleges as well, and so it's been a really great thing to see this thing progress. We've hit some dips here and there. Again, not everybody is wanting to go into the legal field, but we've had a number...we had a really large number.
Two years ago, we had maybe about four individuals going through. And then the year that the Edgar Ray Killen case was ongoing -- that was that summer of the 40th anniversary I believe, if I'm not mistaken, of the slaying of the three civil rights workers. That was just so important and a part of their internship program was to go and sit in that hearing and listen to testimony and to see...to look across the well of this courtroom and to see a diverse jury sitting there of African-Americans, of just the members of the community, which you would never have seen 40 years ago, obviously not. And to listen to testimony and to hear what had happened during that time, for them it's just...it's history, but it's something that people of my generation...I was born in 1964 and the things that I experienced growing up in the South during that time, not knowing how much of an impact it was going to have on me later once I understood, "˜I'm being denied service.' And so I want the young people to understand how difficult it was for the tribe to move forward, to get to where they are. They had so many different obstacles. And again, all these projects -- the Indigenous Law Project, the internship program, teen court -- all of these different projects have recurring themes of, 'Remember where you've been, how important your role as a tribal member is to our society.'"
"You mentioned teen court, which is what I was going to ask you about next, as well as some of the other initiatives that grew out of the 1997 reform and particular initiatives that incorporated consciously the Choctaw values that you've discussed. So tell us a little bit about teen court and specifically, why was it developed, how does the process work, perhaps how does it engage those young people and work to teach them the value of their role in moving the nation forward?"
Rae Nell Vaughn:
"It's very interesting how teen court developed because we were in pretty much temporary housing and we were very limited in regards to detention space and we were seeing more and more of our young people getting into trouble at various degrees of severity and some of them very minimal, but still required some type of sentencing of sorts. And we weren't making an impact simply because our young people have been desensitized. "˜So I'm going to go to jail, so what? I'll go do my time, I come out.' And then secondly, because we weren't able to house them on site, on the reservation, we were having to use outside facilities that made it even almost more enticing. "˜Hey, I got to go to Scott County and be with the really tough people,' and that type of mentality. And so we were struggling, we were struggling. And within the youth code, it said that using detention was the very last alternative, but that's all we were using and we needed to find some mechanisms of using other alternatives to help deter juvenile delinquency.
And we were looking at other models. I'm real big about "˜look at a model.' There's no sense in reinventing the wheel. If something is working somewhere else, let's pull it in and let's pull pieces out to see if we can 'Choctaw-ize' it as it were and make it our own. So we investigated a number of models of teen court, a diversion program, which gives the youth court the opportunity to of course allow the juvenile delinquent a sentencing, but it's more so by his peers. The way the process starts out is the juvenile delinquent is brought before the court, goes through adjudication. If the court finds the delinquent...the juvenile delinquent of the offense, then if the judge feels that this is an issue that can be handled in teen court, then the case is then transferred into teen court. Teen court is more of a sentencing court of the teen's peers. Also we have members of our teen community who come in and serve in different capacities, as prosecutor, as defense counsel, bailiff, members of the jury panel, but the only adult that's in there is the judge himself or herself -- I've served as a teen court judge -- and the diversion coordinator. Those are the only adults that are involved, as well as the party's parents who are coming in. And so they go through this process, the go through the hearing, the case is presented to the judge again, but the jury ultimately decides.
And it was very amazing to watch the process when we set up a mock hearing or it was even the actual hearing, the actual first hearing. We'd gone and done some training with them and gave them the tools of what they needed and then we had an actual case. Well, they came back with a very severe sentencing. I can't recall exactly what the offense was, maybe breaking and entering or something of that sort, but they were given multiple hours of community service, they were going to write this letter of apology, they wanted them to stand at the corner of an intersection and say, "˜This is my offense,' and everything. And so we had to kind of reel them back in and say, "˜Let's really think about this.' And so when we initiated it in early 2000, it was very slow going because it's like, "˜Oh, what is this? Do I want to be a part of this? Is this geeky or what?' But as it moved along, people got more involved in it and we had more young women who were involved in it and we were really pushing hard to recruit young men, and eventually it's grown now. I went to their banquet last month and they have a total of 80 active members of teen court.
One of the other components within the sentencing of the juvenile delinquent is that he or she is to also serve three terms within a setting so if during a semester that there's three cases, that individual has to come after he's completed what he has to do for his sentencing, he's got to get in there and serve as a juror too, which was initially done by design to get him on the right track, him or her, on the right track basically and get them involved in that process because I want young people to see the other side of the bench. I don't want them to be only...their only point of reference is standing in front of the bench. I want them to know what happens behind the bench and so again, giving them that opportunity. Do some of them take it, they do and then they just kind of...either they embrace it or they don't, just like with anything else. But it was always good to see when you had success stories in that regard, because we know nationally that normally children who enter into the youth court arena eventually move into the adult criminal court setting, and you try really hard to get them out of that track of sorts. And so that was an alternative that we looked at, "˜Well, what else can we do?' Because obviously traditional form of court was not working, the adversarial form of court was not working. They were getting desensitized. It wasn't having an impact. So what do we do? And that's one of the things under my leadership I continuously looked at, "˜What are other alternatives that we can look at to help curb a lot of the offenses that are going on within Indian Country to create healthy communities locally at Choctaw and across Indian Country and so several different programs began cropping up. One of them was Healing To Wellness which..."
"I was just going to ask you about that."
Rae Nell Vaughn:
"Yeah, which was just phenomenal for me because we have such a high rate of offenses that were committed under the influence of alcohol. So what do we do? All we were doing basically was having this revolving door of people just coming through, domestic violence cases, public drunk, DUIs, so many different things happening and we recognized it was revolving around alcohol abuse. And so what do we do? So we looked at this model, we applied for an implementation...planning grant and we went to a series of trainings and found that this model meshed with the core values of this tribe and we eventually were able to receive a grant to start us off for three years. That grant has no longer, now has ended and we're no longer under that funding source. However, we presented to the tribe once our three years was up, "˜This program has ended and we really want to continue it.' And that's one of the issues that tribes face all the time is sustainability. And so how do we sustain this?
Well, we were able to present to the tribe how successful it was and that we were able to hit all the benchmarks that we had proposed in the grant. And a lot of...because it's a multi-disciplinary approach where an individual may be a first offender of DUI or alcohol-related crime and the judge feels that this may be a case that's prime for Healing to Wellness and then we'll transfer that case over into that program. It's a year-long process, which means the individual has the opportunity to opt in or opt out with it if the judge wants to transfer this over because they may say, "˜Forget it, I know I'm not going to be able to do this, let me pay the fine, let me do my jail time and let me move on.' But then you have those people who are really ready for change or who may be at the crossroads of their life and say, "˜I do need help and I do want to change.'
And so the individual then enrolls into this program and they have a multi-disciplinary team that works with them on a weekly basis and they go through the rigors of the program itself. Yes, they're required to meet with their probation officer, they meet with a behavioral health person, the judge is also involved, the Healing to Wellness judge is also involved in this. So you've got about maybe six to seven people that come together once a week, they review cases and then they have all the individuals, it's a group effort where they all come in and they go over what was the expectation for the week, what they were supposed to do, did they accomplish those things and then if they didn't, there are penalties and you're not able to phase -- it's a four-phase project -- you're not able to phase out so it just takes longer for you to move through the program.
And at the end of it, I've gone to a number of graduations. It's always been very emotional for these people because they see where they were going and they now know and have the keys basically because for them if they were...if this was a really big issue for them, dealing with alcoholism that it was going to be a day-to-day process. And so having those relationships developed with people in behavioral health was going to be more key for them, but we also recognize that we would have to cut the tether and that they themselves were going to have to make good choices. And so it was really...it was a really good exercise for them and for us as professionals within this area and also as community members to see this happen, because you want success, you want them to be successful and you want them to have the success not only for themselves, but for their family as well, because you know that there's a lot of them that come from very dysfunctional homes and they're the primary person who's bringing the income in and how important it is too, if not for yourself for your family, as well."
"So these sorts of initiatives, the Healing to Wellness court, the teen court -- those are directly geared towards restoring health within the community and then there's the challenge of handling all of your relationships with outsiders that particularly grow out of economic development and all the commerce that involves outside entities, whether they're vendors, whether they're employees who are non-tribal who live off the reservation, whatever it might be. So when you guys really moved forward full bore with your economic development you had to be ready. And so you've put in several rules, policies, institutions within the court system, within tribal government to ensure that your justice is prepared for that challenge to meet the growth, the challenge of managing that growth. And I wanted to have you talk about a few of those and first off are a couple of things internal to the court system itself and that is the qualifications of judges. Can you talk about the qualifications that are mandated in the Choctaw tribal code for judges, how they're selected, approved, removed, and what sort of requirements do they need to be able to sit on the bench?"
Rae Nell Vaughn:
"Well, the process itself, this...the judgeships are appointed positions. They are nominated by the leadership, by the chief, presented to the tribal council, the council then confirms them, but you have a list of qualifications that helps you filter through those individuals who may be interested or who you feel that might be qualified and able to sit on the bench. There's an age requirement, 35. So that tells you I'm over 35. You have to have a minimum of two years of college, a tribal member, which is key. One of the other requirements that -- because we had to have on the bench law-trained judges -- was that the chief has the ability to waive the membership. And so that's how we were able to have non-tribal members sit as well as non-Indians sit so that we could be able to provide, again to be able to handle the types of cases, the complex cases that would be coming in in regards to commercial law and civil jurisdictional issues on this bench. And so we were able to strengthen our civil division to be able to handle the types of cases that we anticipated coming before this court.
Another thing that the court did or the council did as well, which was earlier on in the mid to late "˜80s, was incorporate a canon of ethics. Initially that was set up primarily for the judges. And again, I think at that time it was more of setting the code up, "˜So let's get some models,' and so there never really was any deviation from the ABA's [American Bar Association's] canons of ethics. So they're pretty straightforward and mirror exactly what ABA states as well. Back in, I believe it was early 2000 or the late "˜90s, because the...no, it was the early-2000s era, because our system was growing, our staff was growing from a staff of prior to reorganization of maybe five to six people to now a staff of 32 people -- 12 members on the bench and support staff -- we felt that it was very important for them to also understand what it was to serve as a judicial officer and that they too needed canons of ethics to follow as well, although those should be inherent as just being people of the court and understanding why we're there, but we felt that they too were a part of this larger system of justice and needed to also have these canons as well. And we also shared with them, "˜It's not to hinder you. It's to also protect you because you will have other forces coming at you,' and so, "˜No, I can't. That violates my canons of ethics.' There you go, it's a shield. And so we incorporated and put that through the process of review with the Judicial Affairs Committee, which is the legislative oversight of the system and eventually brought it before the full council for approval and it was approved. There continues to be challenges because of where we sit within the organization of government, serving as a statutory court. Well, then you also are bound by your administrative personnel policies and that lack of understanding. Well, there are these things called canons of ethics and it's like this, what do we do with it kind of thing. We haven't really had any violations of canons of ethics on the judicial side of it, so we have not ever initiated any kind of mechanisms of removal, but the code is clear. If there are clear violations of the canons of ethics, that is grounds for removal and there is a process within the code, but beyond the language within the code, there isn't actually step-by-step processes, which was, as you know, there's a long laundry list of things to do and you just can't get to all of them. And so that was one of the other things that needed to be looked at. Well, you have this body of law, but there are no processes to...once the mechanism is triggered, what do you do? And so that was one of the other areas that needed to be worked on and hopefully they will at some point get back to that."
"So there's this issue of the court ensuring its own integrity, essentially building those shields against either corruptive behavior, self-interested behavior -- whatever it might be -- and then there's this issue of, "˜Well, how do we help to neutralize any political impulses that may come from outside forces to actually interfere in the court's jurisprudence?' And so, specifically, there's a couple things that have been put in place to help mitigate against those impulses specific to the council and any behavior they may exhibit. So there's a couple things that you guys have put in place. Can you talk about those things? How has Choctaw worked to try to control any sort of political interference from the outside?"
Rae Nell Vaughn:
"Well, even you as a judicial officer get inundated with a lot of ex parte[communications]. As I shared with you earlier in our conversation, as a judge you don't have the ability to just blend into the general populace; you can't. You've got people you see at the grocery store, at the post office, down the street at the gas station while you're pumping gas for your car and then someone will come up and say, "˜Hey, this is what's going on. Can you help me?' Or you have families that are in crisis and the only thing as a judge you can say is, "˜I can't help you, you need to get an attorney, you need to get advice from an attorney.' And that's one level, but then there's the other level of when you have tribal council crossing the line and wanting to apply pressure at making changes of decisions or in regards to possibly constituents in incarceration and things of that sort.
And I want to believe that council members are coming with good intentions. It may be the man who is the only person that works in this family of five and he's gotten picked up and he's got to serve 30 days in jail, which means the possibility of his...of losing his job is great, which means there will be no income coming in and so you have the councilman that is saying, "˜Can you reconsider, can you make this change?' And so I want to...all of these issues put it in the light of they're really looking at the best interest of the constituent. That may not be so, I also recognize that as well, and the code is clear in regards to tribal council members. They're not allowed to come into court and practice as an advocate. They cannot come and represent a tribal member within court. Just the mere presence -- and that was hard for them to understand -- because just the fact that you're sitting in the well of that court can be perceived as applying pressure on a judge because the judge is not naí¯ve; he knows why you're there. You don't come to court every day to sit and watch tribal court in action simply because you don't have anything to do. And so just the appearance of it really would...the messages are sent. And so having that in place, as well as not allowing council members to sign bond or post bond and bail for individuals in incarceration was also another body of law that they put into place. That was really hard for them to understand, that you can't...you're just not allowed to..."˜I can't accept your money,' you're just not allowed to do that. And what it also provided was this means of insulating the two bodies, the judicial body and the legislative body, from that appearance of impropriety. It's a hard call because you're shifting, your code and your law is shifting in such a way that you have all these very specific things and it's like, "˜Why can't I do this? I'm trying to help the people.' And the unfortunate thing is that you may be doing a disservice for them by not allowing them to pay the price, the consequences of their actions because it's obviously detrimental, possibly if this is a habitual person who are not making change. They need to go through the process; maybe we get them into Healing to Wellness.
There are just...you've got to allow the process to take place, you can't interfere with process because that's the entire premise of this sovereignty, is allowing process to take place to allow us to interpret law and to perform and to render decisions. And if you're not happy, another thing that we also put into place was strengthening the supreme court, because initially it was set up as a court of appeals with the lower court judges serving as the reviewers of the case minus the division that the case came out of and it didn't quite work well. And so because of all this growth and the economic development, the population and everything, the idea was, "˜There needs to be a higher tier of court totally separate from the lower court.' Has it worked? It has worked. Has it had problems? Yes, it has had problems because we're still trying to figure out the role of the chief justice because even internally that role of the chief justice, which I struggled with every day, was the fact that I served as the principal judicial officer. I had two roles: I was the judicial officer, the chief justice for the supreme court, but I also was the court administrator over all of this system. And so you had issues of conflict at times whereas, okay, there's a complaint coming in from a judge on a particular case; procedurally, as their supervisor, administratively, I would receive these complaints. And so we had to look at another means of getting this information around so that someone else can be a reviewer, but then as a supervisor how can I get in there and evaluate performance if...you might have a judge that just sits there and sleeps through the entire session and then just drops the hammer and says, "˜Guilty!' And so how do you do that? And it was a constant struggle. We looked at a number of models, and the unfortunate thing is we weren't ever able to execute a way that I could administer fairly without that appearance of becoming involved in cases that had the potential of moving into the supreme court and that continues to be a struggle because you certainly -- and again, I'm real bad about talking out of both sides of the mouth -- you certainly don't want to have a rule for everything. You've got to be able to use some judicial discretion in judgment."
"So there's this challenge internally of building a strong and independent court system, demonstrating it in practice, and then there's the further challenge of having to serve as an advocate for that system and go out and actually educate not only your own community but outsiders to say, "˜Hey, you need to take us seriously. We're a strong and independent court system. We can provide fair and effective justice to not only our own members, but outsiders as well.' You and your colleagues within the court system have made a concerted effort over the years to advocate for the court system, to build those relationships with outside entities, intergovernmental relationships that have really served the tribe and the court system very well. Can you talk about some of those?"
Rae Nell Vaughn:
"Yes, that's always a challenge when you're having to lobby for the court. It's a juggling act because again, it's that relationship and you're presenting to your council who approves your budget of the activities of the court, the increases of the docket and, "˜Well, why do you need this much money? All you're doing is sitting there and providing justice.' Well, it's so much more than that with operations and looking at other alternatives and means to provide wellness to the community. Going to the area of education, that is what is key because people don't understand the system and it's a very...it's not a difficult system, but it is a tedious system because you have to go just...my question always is, "˜What happens when the paper hits the window of the court? Where does it go because that is not only paper, that's a party, that is a person, that is an issue that is happening out in the community. What happens to it? Where does it go?' And it goes through so many different steps and council members, the legislative body, just really doesn't understand why it takes..."˜Why does it take so long? Why does it take so long to get the case before the judge?' And so it's educating them. We initiated a symposium back in 2001 and we had tried to do this on an annual basis for our practitioners, but also for the general public to understand Choctaw justice, the judicial system and the legal community itself and to help them navigate through it and to also bring to them very specific issues such as issues of gaming, the latest cases that are coming before the Supreme Court, where they are and the impacts they may have on us individually as tribes. We also looked at a topic of economic development and the importance of having our practitioners prepared for maybe minimal cases in the sense of you may have a salesman coming through the tribe selling his wares and for whatever reason it doesn't work out and it ends up landing in court, all this commercial information. And then also, whenever we had new laws that were put into place, this was the forum to get that information out and also for them to have their bar meeting. No, it's not a very large bar, but we also wanted to keep in touch with them to let them know what was happening because as an attorney you're going through the daily rigors of it and it's pretty...it's the same stuff over and over basically of what they're dealing with and so it's just preparing them for whatever may pop up and then when you least expect it, it happens, a membership issue, possibly a challenge -- things of that sort. And we also provide for the council an opportunity to have a summit to sit down and talk with them during the session of things that they may want to...and this is more in closed doors so that...I've always believed if we've got issues that we have to deal with that, let's deal with it here at home because we certainly don't need it out in the public. One, there in the community because then it questions the trust of the system, but two, out in greater society because then it really may reflect a negative connotation of this thing called 'justice' on the reservation. And so if there are issues or problems, let's hammer it out here, let me know what may be an issue or problem and also we can also reciprocate with that and share with you what some of the challenges that we may be facing. For example, as we talked earlier, this issue of ex parte [communications] or trying to get to the judge to make changes and how important our integrity as a court system needs to remain intact. And so we were fortunate to be able to have those communications, but even more so that we were able to reach out beyond our own jurisdiction to the jurisdiction of the state and that was one of the very key things that happened during my tenure with this court was the ability to open that door with the Supreme Court for the State of Mississippi.
I had this visit where Chief Justice Jim Smith and his associate Jim Waller, Jr. came down and they wanted to have a conversation. And we sat down and we talked and I shared with them what our system was all about and we...and that's what initially began the conversation and then he invited me to come in and talk with a group of municipal judges at their annual association and then we invited him to our symposium to serve as our guest speaker. We also invited the state attorney general to come in and serve as a speaker and so we've been able to have that give and take and I've always believed...it's like, "˜Well, why didn't it happen earlier? Why didn't it happen way before my time?' But I truly believe it's time and place that really plays a key role and we were both open to having this dialogue. What else has spun from that, on the federal side we're able to have...because of relationship building more so with the leadership and at the federal level we have the ability -- which we may have already talked about earlier -- having a U.S. District attorney come to the tribe and office with us one day a week to handle cases that may be going through the federal system, which is unheard of. You don't have that across Indian Country if...I'm sure it's very few, if any, that have that ability to have a U.S. District attorney come in on the reservation and sit. We also have a U.S. probation officer that comes in as well. And again, that was developing relationships, [intergovernmental] relationships."
"And don't those have really powerful benefits in terms of understanding because you have these outside entities that for many tribes have long interfered with tribal justice systems and now they're -- instead of being adversary or a constant source of irritation or interference -- they're now potentially an ally, or at least saying, "˜We recognize your authority, we recognize your competence,' etc.?"
Rae Nell Vaughn:
"Exactly and I believe that is, that's the clear message that it sends and that we are all partners now in this. And also we've experienced the same type of relationship building with the county system as well. We had two tribal members who had an issue in county court and the judge picks up the phone, and it was an issue he felt that could be handled in our peacemaking court and he says, "˜You know, I think that you could better deal with this than I can,' and he transferred a case out of county court to tribal court. And I don't...it never...for some people they just never really wrapped their mind around that, and I'm like, "˜Can you believe that even happened?' That was just something that was just really, to me it was historic, it was something you just don't...you wouldn't even think it could happen and it happened. But again, it goes back to that...the thinking that this is a stable system, this is a court system of integrity. You will receive fairness in this system. Some people may not agree with the system all the time, but they know they got a fair shot in there. And so if anything that's the clear message."
"I want to wrap up with a quote from former Chief Phillip Martin and he made this statement a few years back. He was delivering, I believe, delivering a talk at Harvard and he was asked by a student, "˜Are you at all concerned that all the economic growth you've experienced has had a negative impact on your culture?' And he said -- he thought for a second -- then he said, "˜I don't know. It used to be everyone was leaving and now they're coming home.' And really what he was talking about was through this economic growth we've had an opportunity to create stability and to bring opportunities to our people. Can you comment on his statement and perhaps address specifically the role of the justice system in creating that environment of stability and opportunity?"
Rae Nell Vaughn:
"With the dramatic growth, you have your members coming back in, but how does this relate to the system, to the justice system? Twenty years ago, you would never have...I would never have had the opportunity to come as a tribal member and sit in a position of authority to assist our people in regards to justice. It may not have ever happened. I completed my college education. I could have easily left, but I chose not to; I chose to stay and become a servant of the tribe and to provide that service to them. And had the landscape not been such where I could have had that opportunity, it wouldn't have happened. Where would we have been had things not taken place, we probably would not have moved mountains as we have now. And so it just sounds so much like Chief Phillip Martin. "˜Yeah, they're coming back, they're not leaving anymore.' And if anything it strengthens who we are as a people. And we have so many talented people and now there's an opportunity to show that talent, for them to step up and take on these roles of leadership in different capacities. Not just the ultimate leadership but leadership within your community, leadership within the work that you're doing, leadership even within the State of Mississippi coming in as an entrepreneur, bringing employment and economic diversity to not only the tribe and the state. So yeah, they're not leaving, they're coming back and there's something to come back to and that's home."
"Well, great Rae Nell. I really thank you for your time. It's been quite an education. That's it for today's program of Leading Native Nations. To learn more about Leading Native Nations, please visit nni.arizona.edu. Until next time, I'm Ian Record. Thank you for joining us. Copyright 2009 Arizona Board of Regents."