Rae Nell Vaughn

Rae Nell Vaughn: So What's So Important About Tribal Courts?

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Rae Nell Vaughn, former Chief Justice of the Mississippi Choctaw Supreme Court, discusses how justice systems are critical to Native nations' exercise of sovereignty, and sets out some key things that those systems need to have in place in order to administer justice fairly and effectively on behalf of their nations. 

Resource Type
Citation

Vaughn, Rae Nell. "So What's So Important About Tribal Courts?" Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. November 7, 2013. Presentation.

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"[Choctaw language]. Good morning. And I want to thank my brother from Oklahoma for the fine music and words. [Choctaw language]. Thank you. My name is Rae Nell Vaughn as Ron [Trosper] has said and I promise, I am 21. I've worked for the tribe for many, many years in different capacities; however, this capacity as serving as a judge was the most life-changing experience and enlightening moment for me. I served as a judge for 11 years and let me tell you, I definitely came in -- as I heard from one of our colleagues yesterday -- with rose-colored glasses on.

I remember the day when one of the judges came in, and at that time I was working with the Archives Department for the tribe, and she said, "˜Come out here and talk with me for a minute.' So we stepped outside on the patio and she said, "˜Rae, what do you think about being a judge?' I was very stunned at the moment. "˜A judge? What? Are you kidding me? I can barely make a decision for myself let alone for anybody else.' And the conversation went from there. I spoke with my mother and I spoke with my grandmother and my family at that time to talk about --- and of course she was being serious -- and to talk about whether this was the path I wanted to take. No one grows up saying, "˜I want to be a judge, that's what I want to be.' I remember -- she did -- I remember talking with my children and I said, "˜It just...it was on my path.' I just didn't know that it was on my path, but did I know that I was going in that direction?

In hindsight, yes, I see all the signs of where I was going that eventually led me there and gave me the opportunity for the experience, and then building on that experience, allowing me the opportunity to work within the executive branch. And so I say that to say that a lot of the conversations I've been listening to yesterday really validate a lot of the things that I have learned throughout my career and my years of working for the tribe. And let me tell you, it's a struggle at times when you're working for your own tribe, because there's always a tendency...and I know a lot of us have a lot of war stories, I'm sure many of you do, of how there's this sense of you're more on the cross than not, especially with your council, especially with your leadership, your local leadership and it's just almost like, "˜Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this?' But at the end of the day, we know that we're doing this for our future, for our children, just as our grandparents and our great grandparents did for us.

And it's amazing as Ron shared with us his experience with Chief [Phillip] Martin, I had the great fortune of being present, of seeing the evolution of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, of Mississippi Choctaw from a point of where there was poverty and then a period of prosperity, and like every society of a rise and fall and of a dark period of leadership. So we've had the experience that many tribes have also gone through too, and now we're in another period of our history, of a renaissance, of a new leader rising. We were fortunate to have Phillip Martin, the late Phillip Martin, who passed away a couple of years ago, for over 40 years of leadership and it was an amazing time of vision and of moving forward. And at the time of his...of not being reelected, we had a new leader, and unfortunately that leader chose to lead from a base of fear and created a lot of dissention and it causes people...you get angry because you want your government to succeed, and it caused people to step forward...causes people to step forward, because you know what's right.

So what I'd like to do at this time is talk with you about tribal courts and its role in tribal government and its importance, how it's important for you as leaders to understand the role and the capacity of the court. And there's one thing I will tell you that I have learned and you'd think I would have got that a long time ago, but how your economic development and your court systems, they have to run parallel. If you're wanting to move forward, those things you run parallel.

So let's go ahead and take a look at this slide presentation. And I apologize, I don't have the glitzy slide presentation that Dr. Ian [Record] had. I really like his, it was just zooming and moving about and I only have 30 minutes and Renee [Goldtooth] is going to [be] popping that sign up at me so I'm going to go quickly so that I can allow my co-presenter to present as well. And for those of you who don't recognize it, I love to talk. I love to talk.

Our first question is what role do or should Native nation justice systems play in Native nation rebuilding? Well, the key role I think is that it exercises sovereignty, the pure exercise of sovereignty. You as a government have the right and can exercise it and develop a court system. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians operated under a BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] court until the early "˜70s. It was around 1974, '75 when the tribe then took over the tribal court system and it was a very small court, still funded by BIA of course, but we had a special judge who was non-Indian, a law trained attorney, and then we had the tribal judge and we had one clerk. And at that time our population was maybe about 3,000 people, not a very large population. We were still having issues of the local govern...the local law enforcement reaching our lands and coming in. I can vividly remember a time during our Choctaw Fair, which is held in July, of the paddy wagon coming by and we saw...I remember clearly seeing a tribal member sitting in that patty wagon. He was intoxicated and the county police had come and scooped him up and took him out, just did it. And then we began working towards taking on our own systems.

What key components do these justice systems need to possess? Law. How do we define law? We talk about an organic document of law and document can be subjective, written or unwritten. You need customary law, you may need or may not need a written constitution, ordinance and codes and common law, very basic. We have made points to ensure that we interweave tribal law, Choctaw law. Some tribes are very fortunate to have and to maintain and to practice their customary law. Unfortunately for Choctaw, a lot of things were not written or were not passed down as they should have been, but there are key elements that we do follow, values, Choctaw values that we do maintain, but not to the extent of some of the tribes that I know that were fortunate enough to be able to continue their practice. I think a lot of the tribes east of the Mississippi encountered these types of things. But again, those are the key things that these systems need to possess.

Why is it important that justice systems be strong and independent? Justice systems work hand in hand with the executive and legislative branches, and when I say that I say that in regards to the checks and balances of each of these branches. For Mississippi Choctaw, the tribal court is a statutory court. In their constitution, there are only two branches that are recognized, but we had gone over and beyond to ensure that there was a separation of this system. Now could they continue with a court? With it being a statutory court they could easily do away with the court, but they recognized the need of a forum of adjudication of these laws and so we continue with a court system, separate but equal.

What do strong, independent justice systems require? The very first thing, which is primary, is that you would be able to adjudicate with no political interference. Now how many of you have heard horror stories of leadership calling the judge, "˜What the beep are you doing down there? Do you know that that's my brother? We better do something about that.' And the one thing, I had never had leadership, the top leadership ever call me as a judge, but I had had a councilwoman call me and she was having issues with her children in our juvenile court and of course I'm the juvenile judge, and I said, "˜You know, it's already in the system, there's nothing that can be done. I don't think we need to have this conversation.' "˜Well, let me tell you Rae Nell, don't forget who approves your budget and your salary.' "˜Yes, ma'am, I'm very aware of who does. You are one of 16. That's who approves my budget and my salary. You are one of 16.' So I know that it's challenging as a judge, as a judicial officer when you have...when you live in the community, when you're a member of the community, it's very challenging, but we stand strong trying to maintain the integrity of the system, because I want you as a tribal member to feel confident in the system. As my co-presenter and I spoke earlier, there's always going to be a winner and there'll always be a loser. That's the name of the game. There's no...there's not going to be any way where both of you are going to come out on top, it just is not going to happen. I shared with one person, "˜If you don't like what's happening in court, don't get yourself there. Don't put yourself there.'

Secondly, to have the ability to appoint or elect qualified tribal members to serve as judges, and this is a work in progress I know for many, many tribes. We have on our bench currently two tribal members who have their juris doctorate. Our supreme court has two non-member associate justices who have their JD. So we're working towards those ends, of changing the bench, the structure of the bench in order to have law trained judges.

Thirdly, a canon of ethics, that should be a given. I've always shared with our judges when we go over the canon of ethics, "˜It's there to protect you. It's there to protect you.' You always have all these different forces coming at you and to say, "˜No, I can't do that, it's a conflict of interest, it's an appearance of impropriety.' 'This is what it looks like, if it's a duck... What's the saying, "˜If it quacks, if it swims, if it does... it's a duck. A duck is a duck.''

How has your nation remade, how is it remaking its justice system to more effectively resolve disputes? Well, they need qualified personnel. That's for sure. Our code is very broad in its qualifications. However, as I said, it's an evolving process where we're working towards trying to get the best personnel on staff and that's not just the judges itself, it's the support staff. It's your clerks, it's your probation officers, it's your advocates, your lay advocates. Everyone that's involved in that system, you're wanting folks who are coming in qualified in the sense of training, experience, what it is they're bringing to the table and enhancing those skills.

Financial resources. Have you ever been in a position where you're like looking at the budget and "˜Hmm, are we going to make it to the end of the year?,' because you had that one particular case that ate up your transcription fees, that you're having to provide outside counsel for and you're like, "˜This is that big case that really damages the budget, just blows it clean out of the water.' That's where your relationship with the executive and legislative is important in the sense of the administration of justice, ensuring that you have the adequate finances to operate the system because there is an administrative part to your judiciary.

Interdependence, again, talking about the checks and balances and making sure that you have these clean relationships, because you do have to have a relationship with your executive and you do have to have a relationship with your legislative body, but to understand where these boundaries are and of what you can talk about. It's very easy to have a conversation and we're talking about a code section and everything and then the conversation goes into a particular case over an issue that's happening in the community and you're like, "˜Whoa, wait a minute, we can't go there, we can't have that talk right now.' But those conversations of the administration, of their support, those are things that you need to have and it's a balancing act, it truly is a balancing act.

So how do we maintain law and order? Well, for Mississippi Choctaw, the system as I said earlier is a much bigger system than the judiciary itself. We have court services and under the Department of Court Services you have the probation office and you have teen court. Teen court -- for those of you who are not familiar -- is a forum that's available to our juvenile delinquents after they've been found delinquent to give them an opportunity to have their sentencing given to them by their peers and it's a very enlightening process. It also gives those young people, individuals to actually see how the system works. All of the positions in a teen court setting are held by young people except for the adjudicator, the judge, which is one of the judges minus the judge that heard the case who would sit and preside over this.

And I know the very first case that they held when we began operating the teen court, they wanted this juvenile delinquent to stand on the corner with a big sign saying that this is the crime that he committed, they wanted 1,000 hours of community service work. They were just like slamming him because of the vandalism and the offense that he committed and the message that we were trying to share with our youth is that, "˜Yes, this juvenile delinquent committed an offense against a person,' but it's more than that. It's committing an offense against the entire tribe, the effect of it, from the individual and the effect that it has on that individual, the rippling effect. So it's not just one person that you're committing a crime against, it's circular, it comes right back to you as a member, a member of the tribe, a member of the community.

And then we have also other agencies that provide support to the court system. We have a victim's advocacy department or program. We have a children's advocacy program. We also rely heavily on behavioral health to participate as especially with children in need of care, to help get our families reunified. And then of course we have the healing-to-wellness court. How many of you have a Healing to Wellness Court or are aware of a healing-to-wellness court, aka drug court? I see one hand, I see two hands. It's been a very successful, for Choctaw, a very successful forum. I think all of us recognize that we do have to look at other forums to help our people. It's easy to say, "˜Well, okay, let's just find them guilty and put them in jail and let's fine them,' and then they're back again, and then they're back again because we're dealing with these symptoms, we're not really getting into the root of what's going on. And so this has been a very valuable tool for us to utilize. Also it pulls in a number of the agencies that we have available to help us help this individual help themselves.

We look at how we reflect, promote our line with our people's cultural values and why these efforts are so important. Again, it's bringing in the Choctaw values. What's Choctaw? I am a tribal member, I sit on that bench and -- I sat on that bench -- and I would listen and you take it all in and I'm able to as a tribal member, as a member of that community to be able to decipher all of this and I'm able to weigh in on, "˜What is the best path for this person?' We have a traditional form of court, which is the Iti-Kana-Ikbi, to make new again, loosely translated "˜to make new again.' I had the good fortune of meeting the former [Navajo Nation Supreme Court] Chief Justice Robert Yazzie at the very beginning of my judicial career back in 1997. A number of us who were newly appointed had the opportunity to go out to Navajo Nation and to learn, and let me tell you it was a very learning experience, meeting the chief justice and meeting with their traditional court and having great dialogue as to how you create a good system, a great system. And I'm very appreciative of the opportunities that we were able to take to sit in in a court that has a record and had a lot of things going on.

What are the other efforts? It's bringing tribal member personnel in because there's an investment there, wouldn't you agree? It's an investment having your own people working your system because that's the goal. Ultimately, for all of us as tribes, that's the goal, us as tribes, as villages, as pueblos. You want your membership running your government. That's ultimately what we all strive for. Also identifying tribal member mentors and this could be our elders, this could be people who come in with a wide range of experiences to help us with shadowing, job shadowing, having someone to talk to. I think earlier yesterday I think someone talked about they felt good about being able to finally talk with someone about this, this case, this issue, how do I resolve it. And as I said throughout this presentation, it's important to interweave your customary law, your customary values with western jurisprudence, how we make that happen, 'Choctaw-ize' it as one of my mentors always said, 'Choctaw-ize' it.

What role does your nation's justice system play in protecting, strengthening and expanding your nation's sovereignty in advancing its nation building priorities? As I stated earlier, to provide financial resources, to create and support the judiciary and the Choctaw legal community. And when I say Choctaw legal community, our tribe has made the investment of not only supporting a judicial system, but we also have an Office of the Attorney General. On the flip side of that we also have a Department of Legal Assistance, which is available for the tribal...the individual tribal member. We also have available lay advocates who come in and also practice in our court. Secondly, the respect of other judicial systems, local and federal. How many times have you heard, "˜Oh, that kangaroo court'? "˜That kangaroo court.' I have heard that so many times. Have you heard that, "˜That kangaroo court?' Have you been..."

Eldena Bear Don't Walk:

"All the time."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"All the time. It was never tribal court, it's that kangaroo court. Well, I didn't realize that we were a bunch of animals, but okay. "˜That kangaroo court can never make a decision, it was never stable, it was up and down, depended on who was leadership, you just never knew what was going to come out of there and how the heck did they come up with that decision. That kangaroo court.' That's where we need to work. And unfortunately in Indian Country, there are those systems that don't have the support or do have interference and aren't able to have the credibility and the respect of the membership.

When I say the confidence of companies to do business with the Choctaw courts by entering into contract with the tribe, what I'm saying here is that, as I stated earlier with economic development, if you have a company that is wanting to come in and do business with your tribe, the first thing they're going to ask is, "˜Okay, if we have a dispute, where are we settling it? Do they have codes? What is the law? What's the rules to the game?' And so it's important to ensure that you have those things in place. Choctaw has a mirrored UCC [uniform commercial] code that it adopted back in early 2000, a number of codes that give us the ability to do business.

And of course then there was the establishment of the Supreme Court. I spoke earlier about the inception of the tribe taking over the court and at that point we were a membership of 3,000 and we had the special judge and then we had a tribal judge and then we had a clerk. Well, as the tribe began to grow in population and economically, the leadership then saw the need to strengthen and expand the system, and then in 1997 -- and I'll back up a little bit -- in 1994 we opened our casino. So what does that mean? Boom, the economics jumped up. You had people coming on to the reservation, customers coming in, you had a lot more vendors coming into the reservation, you had a lot of other things happening on the reservation as well. So the tribe chose to reorganize the system and expand it into four individual divisions with a senior judge and associate judge. We were still operating with the lower-level court and setting up an appeal process that would allow the judges that were not involved in the case that was coming up for appeal to sit as arbitrators for an appeal. Well, that wasn't really working well.

So in mid 2000, they chose to establish a Supreme Court and this Supreme Court was made up of three judges who did not participate at the lower court, they wanted to ensure that there was Choctaw values, a Choctaw voice in there so they require a tribal member who met the qualifications of the lower court plus years of experience on the judiciary and to have the associates who sat with the chief justice to be law-trained. And it was a system that worked out very well. On the other side of that, they chose in administrating the judiciary to allow the chief justice to serve as the administrator and there's some pros and cons with that as well. Ultimately, at the end, prior to my leaving the bench, I was operating a court with a budget of $3.5 million and I had 32 staff under me that I supervised. So it shows you the evolution of the system and again it's a growing system.

Ladies and gentlemen, court systems are important and it requires support and it requires attention and it requires the type of people, good people to sit on the bench and to be an adjudicator and to render decisions that are going to be in the best interest of the people, because as you know it's collective, it's for the entire tribe.

And so I thank you for the opportunity. I'm going to now turn it over to my co-presenter and I think we will have questions and answers after her presentation. Thank you."

Eldena Bear Don't Walk and Rae Nell Vaughn: So What's So Important About Tribal Courts? (Q&A)

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

In this short session, panelists Eldena Bear Don't Walk and Rae Nell Vaughn delve into further detail about the importance of tribal justice systems receiving adequate funding in order to administer justice effectively. Robert Yazzie, former Chief Justice of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, also offer his thoughts about the importance of Native nations consulting natural law and their own common law when creating new laws.

Resource Type
Citation

Bear Don't Walk, Eldena. "So What's So Important about Tribal Courts? (Q&A)" Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. November 7, 2013. Q&A session.

Vaughn, Rae Nell. "So What's So Important about Tribal Courts? (Q&A)" Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. November 7, 2013. Q&A session.

Robert Yazzie:

"May it please the court."

Eldena Bear Don't Walk:

"Justice Yazzie, you may proceed."

Robert Yazzie:

"I miss that -- when attorneys and practitioners approach coming to court and make their case. I really appreciate your presentation and you hit some of the high points why tribal code should be considered very important. I just want to let you know that my experience, the same way that these judges articulated what they had to go through was no different with mine. And I hear a relationship between the Navajo Nation courts and the Navajo Nation Council. We used to always say that Navajo codes is a stepchild, it's always a last priority when it comes to budget. So even then, we fought and fought and we had the same experience. The council delegates would come to me and say, ‘Can you do something with this case?' And I would say, ‘If I do something for you, you and I could be in trouble. And when I put my hand up to say, ‘I will do the best to administer the law under Navajo law,' it means I have to adhere to the ethical considerations and I can't ask the council for favoritism, neither can the council ask for favoritism of me. That's a responsibility that you and I have. And I don't want you to get in trouble and I don't want to be in trouble, that's bad stuff.' So those who have experienced, have gone through...and even meeting with all the judges on a national level, we heard about the attitude. ‘The judges don't know anything and the judges are dumb and stupid. Their laws are unfair.' I think that kind of criticism, well, we took it as a positive note to say that we're going to do better. If the outside don't like it, if the Supreme Court of the United States, say they want to do us in, well, so be it.

I had a chance to see...visit...meet Sandra Day O'Connor when she was an associate justice for the Supreme Court. And from Gallup to Window Rock, she told me, ‘Tell me everything there is to know about peacemaking,' and I did that. And upon our arrival, other prosecutors and some of the Navajo Nation attorneys, we gave what we [could], the best that we have, the best possible information. The last thing she said was, ‘Well, it's fine that you talk about tribal sovereignty, but isn't it about time that you seek help from the state?' That just kind of hit me that what she said was, no matter what we say about tribal court and tribal sovereignty, it really doesn't matter to the outside world. It's like, you think as a judge, they really don't give a damn and sometimes you just to get help, have that human emotional feeling speak to you. But now I'm at the point I say, ‘That's okay, as long as we can say to each other as Indian people, 'We can do it.'' We have a mind, we have ability to plan, we have ability to live. The life element is always a key concern of the elders and I'm sure your elders do the same thing. They always say, ‘Does this legal decision have life in it?' [Navajo language] and you'd like to say to them, ‘Yes, there is life in this decision.' And it's because they like to see resilience, they like to see good results, a real bad situation, no matter how bad it is, I think the judges always have to have a good play in it.

So all I'm saying is that, as I tell my students sometimes...I like to teach law; I like to teach young people, Indians. It doesn't matter who, Indian young people, get them groomed, get them orientated, introduce them and say, ‘This is white man's law, this is our law and there's credibility in this law, there's also credibility in this law.' Some people may say, ‘Well, as for legal issues, this white law has all the answers and your law doesn't.' Don't ever assume that that is the truth. Always think [that] there's always something because Indian people have survived through the worst scenarios, the worst chaos and we're still here. And if we take that attitude and say, ‘Well, there's nothing in terms of tribal law,' if we think that way, then so be it. But if we think, ‘There's no law,' there's going to be a law and that law is going to be ours. It's going to have a reflection upon how we think, our values, how we cherish life and that should be the foundation to our legal system. And I think that's what we're talking about, the tribal court and when we say tribal courts.

And the other thing that I tell my, emphasize with my students is that, ‘What if you wake up today and you found out you have no reservation, no tribal court, no tribal council, no land, then what?' And the reason why I ask the question is that, as Steve [Cornell] pointed out and was saying, you have the expertise as Indian people. And yes, the white people have theirs, but if you don't use yours, there's consequences meaning that if we don't see...if our relationship with the federal government is severed, then we would say, ‘What happened?' Some population in the mainstream who'd like to shut down tribal court, tribal council, shut down the reservation and they want all Indian people to be under one law, state law. So as much as you want to save us, as much as you want this understood you say, ‘Is that what we want?' If not, we've got to do our darnedest to hold on to what we have and we have it, we still have it. They say we don't speak the language. We still do. The wind still blows, the sun still comes up, the fire is still there, the water still runs, they have voices, they know our language and they are good mentors to us. That's what you call natural law as a basis for all Indian law. Thank you."

Ronald Trosper:

"Thank you. We have a question over here now."

Adam Geisler:

"Yes. I'm wondering if you could share a little insight on some of the financial challenges that your courts may face and specifically how those dollars relate to the overall structure of the court and personnel, because I think that's one thing we're finding in Southern California is that when you're giving to smaller tribes we have to form consortiums like inter-tribal court down there. And I'm just wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you sustain yourselves as a court without having your cops out there writing tickets all the time for frivolous things."

Eldena Bear Don't Walk:

"A cop would never write a ticket for something frivolous. So in the different court systems that I work in, the trial courts almost always get their money directly from the tribal general council. So there are ways to make your courts a little bit more sustainable in your fees. In every other court in America, every time you file a motion they charge you $20, maybe they charge you $75 and people say, ‘Oh, we don't want to charge our people.' Everybody's got to participate in the community and sometimes that's like saying, ‘We have to feed all of our people for free. We don't have to give them jobs.' Everybody has to be a part of it and you have to be creative with it, but a lot of tribes are using...they get their money out of the general fund, some of them get it directly from the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs], other places get it from grants. And again, the problem you see with grant development is that, yeah, you can develop a great youth court on grant money, but how are you going to make that sustainable in the long term? And a lot of organizations now, for example, the Administration for Native Americans, when they do their program development, you have to explain how you're going to sustain that after the money is gone. So I don't think though...

Montana had an inter-tribal appellate court up into the late ‘80s where there were five or six Indian attorneys or attorneys who practiced Indian law who traveled from tribe to tribe doing their appellate work for them and it was financially very reasonable and accessible for tribes to use instead of trying to fund their own court systems. Washington has a very similar program for all of the little tiny Salish tribes over on the coast. Don't think that you have to have your own system to make it work. If you can work in a consortium, lots of tribes are working in consortiums. Consortiums can build power, they can build opportunity, they at least can give you the access to a tribal court system because that's what you want and then you can expand.

The money for tribal courts is tricky. It really depends on how your tribe is situated: if you want to do contract, if you want to do grant money, if your tribe is willing to just take it out of their general fund. The money for my court specifically comes out of the general fund and fortunately or unfortunately any money that we make -- and that means filing fees, transcription fees -- that isn't paid out goes back into the general fund so we don't keep it. We had a law conference this summer. Any money that we made went back into the general fund; it didn't come back into our account. So we run on a very small budget, the appellate court does. I know that our tribal courts run on limited budgets as well. I think that it is irresponsible to think that you're going to get all of the money you ever need for everything that you want.

And again, people need to learn to be creative. Everything is underfunded. The American government is underfunded, the United Nations is underfunded, your tribal court system is underfunded, your city court is underfunded so you're going to have to figure out how to make it work the best way you possibly can. Unfortunately too, we have not...we have developing jail systems; we just got a new jail. Other places have jails that I know are absolutely condemnable or have been condemned, but they're still using them for detention. Those are things that administrations have to make priorities. Your courtroom itself is not necessarily a reflection of everything, but your system is and it's important to make that outward appearance to people. So your jails, your courtrooms, all of those things reflect what the tribe values in its programs."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"I can expand a little as well concerning Choctaw structure of financial support from the government. Similar to my co-presenter we, as I stated earlier, at that point when I was operating the court it was a $3.5 million budget, 82 percent of that was tribal revenue. The rest was a combination of grants and other sources, but again it was sustainability. For example, Teen Court launched based on a grant and the tribe saw the success of the court, of the teen court forum and so they chose to go ahead and continue on with that. In regards to collections of filing fees and fines and things of that sort, we were not able to retain that. That ultimately went back into the general fund. The general fund in turn supported our security and our TSA-type support of going into the court. We were able to, under grant funding, to be able to build a new justice complex over seven years ago, I believe, and so we have the good fortune of having a state-of-the-art detention center. We've talked with other tribes about possibly utilizing our detention center to house their inmates who are currently being housed in county lock-up and having them transported down to Choctaw. So again, creatively, being creative into how you can operate your system.

Rae Nell Vaughn: Tribal Court Systems in the 21st Century: The Choctaw Tribal Court System

Producer
Indigenous Peoples' Law and Policy Program
Year

Former Chief Justice of the Mississippi Choctaw Supreme Court Rae Nell Vaughn provides a detailed overview of the growth and evolution of the Mississippi Choctaw's governance system and specifically its justice system, stressing the importance of Native nations providing a fair, effective, culturally relevant forum for enforcing tribal laws and resolving disputes.

Resource Type
Citation

Vaughn, Rae Nell. "Tribal Court Systems in the 21st Century: The Choctaw Tribal Court System." Indigenous Peoples' Law and Policy Program, College of Law, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 16, 2009. Presentation.

"Thank you for taking time out today to come and meet me and listen to what I have to share: my experiences and expertise in tribal court systems. Our topic will be the "˜Tribal Court Systems in the 21st Century' and my point of reference, of course, will be Mississippi Choctaw. How many of you have ever heard of Mississippi Choctaw, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians? A lot of people at home in Mississippi, when you say that, the first thing that they equate it to is gaming, casinos, Silver Star, Golden Moon, the bells and whistles of gaming, and they tend to forget there are people and there is a government, a society there. As Ryan [Seelau] said, I served as Chief Justice for the Supreme Court for the tribe. I worked with the judiciary for 11 years. I served for the tribe...I worked with the tribe for a total of 23 years in a wide variety of areas -- in health, education, in culture -- and so I'm kind of like the full-package deal. And so having the opportunity to serve the people as a judge was the most humbling invitation for me to have been offered and to have accepted and it was such a traumatic experience for me. I'm a tribal member. I'm a member of the tribe. I lived there for the majority of my life. I was a bit of an Air Force brat for just a short period of time, lived in Massachusetts. My father was stationed at Otis Air Force Base. Came back home to Mississippi and then we went off to Kansas for a bit and then came back and been there ever since. Where's the southern accent, you may ask? It's there, it'll creep out sometimes when I start really rolling along and you might hear a "˜y'all' after a while, so just be looking for it.

What I want to begin talking about is the history of the tribe. As you know, with all tribes across Indian Country, there were a lot of treaties and agreements that tribes went into. Well, our tribe went through such a process as well, and in 1832 we signed our final treaty. We signed. It wasn't like we wanted to sign, it was more or less, "˜You are signing. Here's the pen and here's the line. Sign on the dotted line,' of giving or seceding all our lands to the government. That was the final secession of our lands. However, we did have a number of people who refused to move, to remove and go on the Trail of Tears and we are the descendents of those tribal members who refused to go. Early in the 19th century, the tribe was hit with an influenza epidemic and our membership, our people got down to under 1,000 in the early 1900s. We had no support from the state. We were living in very terrible conditions, working as sharecroppers in the cotton fields, losing a lot of who we are or who our identity was, living in very poor conditions and again, with no help from the state or from anyone. Yet in 1945, applications were made to become federally recognized and we were successful. And in 1945 that happened, we became recognized as the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. However, in my language the name of our people is 'Chahta,' and that is the name of Choctaw and of course, with the non-Indians translating it to 'Choctaw' is how that came to be.

And so with the establishment and recognition as a federally recognized tribe comes what? The development of a government, the establishment of a government, and one of the very first things you have to do in establishing a government is looking at your laws, your foundational laws. And what's that? That's the constitution. And of course, this is not to say that our own tribal structures were not good, but we were being forced to look at models or not to look at it, we were told to. Okay, let's just put it out there. We were told to do it, that's what it is. It is what it is. And so we adopted an IRA constitution and once that happened, then began the function of the government. Now this government is a two-[branch] government, an executive branch and a legislative branch. They went through a lot of challenges because of course, as you know, you've got the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] agent there assigned to you and he pretty much was trying to run the show, basically trying to tell the government what to do.

I don't know if you are, and you probably are...for those of you who are familiar with Mississippi Choctaw, Chief Phillip Martin, who has for the past 40 years led the tribe. And I had the opportunity to read his book because one of the things...and he is my role model, he has been my mentor; he's known me all my life. It took him forever to finally call me -- once I got married -- call me by my married name. It was always, 'Rae Nell Hockett,' 'Rae Nell Hockett.' I'm like, "˜Chief, I'm Rae Nell Vaughn now. I'm grown up.' It's not that snotty-nosed little kid runny down the dirt road. So anyway, I had the opportunity to talk with him, to read the book, and it gave me so much insight about who he was and how he came to be as a leader, and how important all the experience he had led him up to how he was going to lead. Of course he had the boarding school experience, he had the World War II experience having gone to Germany -- all these different experiences molded him into who he ultimately became to be. And so during this period of time, once the tribe began its structure of government and getting government rolling, Chief Martin then became involved in government. I promise you, this is not going to turn into a Chief Martin story, but he's so interwoven into the tribe I would be remiss not to talk about him. So of course, there's this constant butting of heads in regards to what the people want and what BIA wants or they don't want to give you. And so Chief Martin and the other members of the government began taking control, began pushing back, began looking at the things that they needed to do to help the people and to help the people prosper. Like I said, it was a very tough time.

Ryan and Ian [Record] and I were talking a couple of days ago, and in my memories I have flashes of what I remember. I'm 45 years old, so a lot of what has happened has happened during my lifetime and the things I remember, I do remember being in the cotton fields with my grandparents and family, I do remember lining up to go to the outhouse and that was the last time at night, if you didn't catch it then you were on your own, of living in a home with no heat, no running water. Now think about the time frame I'm talking about here: no transportation, no employment, nothing, very rural, very isolated area, very spread out. Communities were very far apart from one another. It was a very challenging time. A friend of mine said, "˜But you know what, Rae, you never really know how poor you are until someone tells you you're poor.' And I can remember during that period of time growing up and being around my grandparents and my great-grandparents. I had the good fortune of having my great grandmother still with me -- who is a renowned basket weaver and has her pieces out in the Smithsonian -- but having that family network, that family connection was so very, very important and you'll see how it's interwoven in what I'm talking about, the close knit-ness.

So his charge, Chief Martin's charge as a member of the community was to get the government up and going and they began doing that. They began making their way to [Washington] D.C., trying to get additional dollars, trying to get assistance. Now let me tell you, the BIA agent did not like this at all. He's like, "˜I'm the big dog here. I should be the one going up there. If anybody's going to go up there, that should be me.' And so there again was that butting of the heads, of people stepping up and taking leadership. Now you know as well as I do that there are ramifications. There could be ramifications for that, and also think about where we are -- rural Mississippi -- at a time where there's a lot of racial tensions and issues and problems going on. And here we are, this small group of Native Americans, the only group of Native Americans that are recognized in the State of Mississippi and yet we're just an afterthought for anyone. They began strengthening the government. The government then [was] able to receive federal dollars from a program called CAP, and what the acronym stands for fails me at the moment, but it was a very important stepping stone for the tribe to begin laying foundations for infrastructure in the sense of services to the people. I promise, we are going to talk about justice systems but I really want you to understand where we were to where we are now.

So, in the midst of that, people are getting enrolled with the tribe. No one's rushing to do that. So you had maybe by the "˜70s maybe a membership of 2,500 to 3,000 people enrolled. And of course our enrollments were skewed like everyone else. There are some people that are enrolled that are blonde-haired and blue-eyed, but knew the agent and got enrolled. So they're tribal members. We do have a group of people down on the Gulf Coast who are mixed but are questionable, but it is what it is. So as the government began to exercise governing, the population is growing. Then came the need of law enforcement, of services, and then ultimately of courts. In the early "˜70s, we had the establishment of the CFR courts, which fell under the regulations of the BIA. Now this was more of a misdemeanor court, is a misdemeanor court; it was handled by one tribal member judge and one clerk. That was it. One clerk, if you could get a clerk, if you could find a clerk. Temporary housing all over the place, just wherever you could find a spot and it could be shared facilities. They barely had actual physical buildings in the governmental area, but it's just wherever you could find a spot. And so that's how they operated court and that's how they enforced law enforcement. Now let's back up with law enforcement. You had only maybe two officers having to patrol large areas and I know that there are some tribes even today that continue to struggle with law enforcement issues. And so we had this structure set up in the early "˜70s and technically it worked, but it didn't work as well as it could. Of course we were reliant on funds from BIA, so we did the best we could do.

Then, under the leadership of Chief Martin, moving from a member of the council, which he was -- and I failed to state that -- then, ultimately becoming identified as the chairman. At that time, through the governmental process of the council, council members were elected in. Then the council itself voted amongst themselves, identifying who the chairman would be. So Phillip Martin then was voted in as the chairman. And so under his leadership, they began looking at industry once they laid down this foundation of infrastructure. It was a long road, a very long road. There were moments of prosperity early on in the mid...late "˜70s with the establishment of Chahta Enterprise. One of the very first companies that they developed was the construction company Chahta Development, which was the flagship, which was what brought revenue in, which is what supplemented the tribal government. And then as that company took off, they began going into other ventures. In the early "˜80s, we then went into the automotive industry. Under Chahta Enterprise, we did work with Ford, NavaStar -- and I'm talking about companies, I know Ford -- but they did a lot of wire harnessing-type assembly, blue collar work, but it was work. However, in the mid "˜80s, as some of you may know from history, we had issues, we had problems with the economy; even then the automotive industry was up and down. And so the tribe was riding on this wave of prosperity and then the wave would dip, but money was coming in. And so then, as more money began coming in for the tribe, and also you have the [Indian] Self-Determination Act, which also kicked in as well and kicked in additional resources, the tribe then took on managing its own services, managing itself under Public Law 638. One of the very first areas that we were able to manage were the courts, law enforcement, and detention. Now mind you, it was a phased-in process because ultimately you have to find personnel, space, operations, and management. And it was during this period of time that we had a lot of exterior things going on that the tribe was dealing with, for example, in regards to the court. In regards to the court, you had the [Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v.] Holyfield case, which I'm sure some of you may be familiar with. This is the adoption case of the tribal, two small tribal children who were adopted off reservation, and this case was the test for ICWA [Indian Child Welfare Act]. And then came 1994, when the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians opened its doors to gaming: Silver Star. Just to give you a sense of how successful it was at the beginning, we paid out our loan in six months, of the money that we borrowed to build this facility -- six months. And let me tell you what I heard Chief Martin had said: "˜Well, you know what, if this doesn't work...,' because really we were looking at, "˜Well, is this going to be a bingo hall? What is this going to be? Is this really going to go?' He said, "˜You know what, if it doesn't take off, we'll turn it into a manufacturing plant.' Well, it didn't happen. Silver Star expanded maybe three or four more times after that and they thought, "˜Well, why do we need to expand? Why don't we built another piece of property across the street?' And in early 2000 I think it was, we then opened the doors to the Golden Moon.

And so in the midst of all of this, you had not only your population increasing of your tribal membership, but you also had an influx of people, non-Indians coming through the reservation, vendors, customers. You had a major highway that ran right through the tribal lands, Highway 16. And so in 1997, the tribe then reorganized again and restructured the tribal court system. And I'll get to the specifics of that a little further into the slide, but one of the other things that happened in 1997 was an accord that was signed between the State of Mississippi and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. And this is very historical and it's very important because this accord recognized each party as a sovereign to say, "˜I recognize you, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. You are a sovereign government and we need to work in partnership.' Some might say, "˜Well, this is just the olive branch, this is just the PR,' but it's significant because once this accord was signed, it opened doors, it began opening doors, doors that we weren't able to open. And I've always said, when we've had positive impact, positive experiences, when the tribe has had the opportunity to see progress, it's always been about who the players are and the timing. And it's key; it's key. And so this was an accord that was signed between the late Gov. Kirk Fordice and of course, Chief Phillip Martin. And it was, it was very historical and we have several historical moments throughout the history of our tribe.

I talked about the organization and structure of the previous court, and I think it's important because one thing that you will learn as practitioners is the importance of support of your court and the makeup of your court. The CFR court structure, as I said, was one tribal judge and one clerk, and then of course in the "˜80s and mid "˜90s, you had a tribal court judge, a member, a tribal member who served on the bench. And then you had a special judge who came in to deal with more of the complex cases that would come before the court and he was a law-trained individual -- I know him -- Judge Vernon Cotton, who's now on the circuit court with the state. Two clerks, a probation officer, and then you had tribal member associate judges who kind of came and went. We never really had a lot of consistency and we'll talk more about that as we go on.

This is the current overall organization of the tribal court system and you'll find that in your handouts. As I shared with you earlier, tribal Choctaw government is set up as two branches and the tribal court is a statutory court, which falls under the umbrella of the Judicial Affairs Committee, which is the oversight committee. They do not participate in the day-to-day operations of the system. We work with them in regards to issues such as budget and code development. They also are the ones who, when there are issues of violations of canons of ethics, things of that sort, they are somewhat of an ad hoc committee on discipline as well. You have the chief justice, who is also the principal judicial officer for the system and is the administrative liaison between the two branches. One of the distinctions of this court or the uniqueness is that we have the ability to create individual divisions of court. So you had a criminal court, you had a civil court, you have your youth and family court and you had -- which we'd never had before -- our traditional form of court, which is the peacemaker court, Ittikana Ikbi. "˜To make new again' is what that translates into. Prior to the Supreme Court, establishment of the Supreme Court, you had what was called the 'Court of Appeals,' which was made up of course of the judges who did not preside over that court, so you had a three-panel court of appeals. But because of the increase of cases that were coming to the court, there was a need to have and develop a separate tier. And so, as Ryan said, that court was established in early 2000.

The Supreme Court consists of course of the chief justice, two associates justices. During my tenure, I had the great fortune of having sitting with me on the bench Frank Pommersheim, Professor Pommersheim as most of you know, and also Carey Vicenti. You don't know the wealth of information those two men bring to the bench: the analysis, the logic, everything. I was just very fortunate to have had the experience of working with those two gentlemen and think very highly of them as well. We also had a pro tem justice who is a tribal member; her name is Judge Roseanna Thompson. She's a linguist, graduated from Penn State and wore two hats: she ran her language program, but she also worked with us in the court. A wealth of experience and knowledge as well; love her to death. Aside from the judiciary, the bench itself, you have the administration of court. Once, of course, you issue a ruling, what happens with all of that and who are all the players that are involved? And this was an expansion of the system itself because we saw more of a need, that the court needed to be more involved and it needed to be more defined and more developed.

And so we established a Department of Court Services and within that service we have a director, school attendance officer, adult and juvenile probation officer, diversion coordinator. The diversion coordinator's responsibility was the development of teen court, which some of you may or may not be familiar with. That's more of a sentencing court for juvenile delinquents. Once they went through formal court and were adjudicated as a delinquent, if the judge felt like the offense wasn't as severe and this young person might be just right at the line of either he's going to go down that road or maybe we can correct it and get him back on the right path. We sent him to teen court. Our very first experience with teen court was amazing. Of course, as you know, with teen court it's made up of their peers, young people who are sitting in different capacities as prosecution, as defense, sitting as a juror, sitting as a bailiff. The only adult in that courtroom was the judge, which could be a member of the community, which could be one of the practitioners of the bar or one of the other judges. I've sat several times in teen court. And so we had our first case and it was a breaking-and-entering case. And it's just like what you may have heard time and time again. They were ready to give this guy a big sign saying that he was guilty of his offense. They wanted to put him out on the road and let everyone see what he was guilty of. They wanted to give him beaucoups of community service hours. And so we had to kind of reel them back in just a little bit, but we had told them and talked with them about how important it is for the juvenile delinquent to understand the offenses that they're committing. That it's not so much against you as a community member, but it's against the tribe, and in essence it's against yourself. And so you have to make this right with the tribe. It's been a very successful program. And that's one of the things with this system that we're looking at is looking at other alternatives to provide justice for our communities in Indian Country.

We also have a youth court counselor who works with juvenile delinquents once they get into the system. We had a receptionist, administrative assistant, custodian, of course, your clerks; we had seven clerks and a file clerk and they are the heartbeat of your system. They are the ones who make the system run. Yeah, the judge can sit up there and drop the hammer, the attorneys come, they argue and there we go, but it's those clerks who make the system run and who cannot allow the system to run. So as practitioners, I strongly suggest you get to know your clerks. You just wait, for those of you who probably are already out there practicing, you know what I'm talking about because you piss a clerk off and you're not getting anything timely, if at all. I assure you. I have seen it. I have received complaints on clerks. So I know. And then again, and I'm not going to belabor the point, but this is the overall structure of the tribe and the court falls here as an independent agency with the tribe. However, yet it continues to be under the executive branch and I want to talk a little bit about that as well.

'Independent agency' -- words are sometimes more cosmetic. A lot of courts in Indian Country are set up the way we are. They're statutory courts, and sometimes aren't given the respect that they should be given. Let me assure you: tribal court is not a program; it is not a social program. It is a form that is established to protect the people and enforce the law. But for whatever reason -- and there are many I'm sure -- there continues to be this tendency of a perception that these are just programs. "˜Tribal court is nothing more than a program like social services, like legal aid, it's just a program.' And until we can, as practitioners, begin changing that mindset...and we have to. We really have to. I'm not quite sure the audience I'm talking to, I know you all are students, the majority of you are and maybe end up working for your tribe or if not for another tribe or for a sovereign nation -- whether it be here or abroad -- but one of the things that, one of the messages I hope to get out and that I hope you take with you is that there needs to be respect for that institution, that it is not a program. And it gets lost in translation in the big scheme of things with tribal government. Tribal governments struggle. You have some governments that are running well, you have others that have a lot of strife going on, but having the ability to exercise your sovereignty by operating a court and providing law and order and justice is one of the very key elements for government. And you, as a practitioner, possibly as an attorney general for your tribe or as just general counsel, you need to keep that in mind, and also protecting your tribe, protecting that sovereign. And it is. It's a term that's used in many senses and much sense abused. We've had that discussion about pulling the sword of sovereignty and wanting to use both sides of it, using it all the time. And I've always told...like I tell my children, "˜You need to pick your battles. You can't fight every one of them. You'll never win the war.' Everybody's heard this but, of course, I'm not going to belabor this. You guys are law students, you know what this is all about, what sovereignty is. If we can go on to the next because I know my time is going here.

And it does, sovereignty begins at home. Again, talking about the exercise of it. And it is truly in a fragile state for Native people. Socially, we have a lot of issues that a lot of these tribes are dealing with and the majority of the time this ends up in the well of the court. That's where a lot of these things are handled. And again, stability and consistency of a good court system is key. You have a high dropout rate of students, high suicide, you have increase in violence -- and this is just speaking in generalities -- you have poor health conditions at times, high poverty rates. They're also factors that we must remedy. And that again goes back to that close knit-ness of the community, of how we can create a more healthy and stable community for all our communities in Indian Country.

Again, exercising the sovereignty and it does, it belongs to the people just like as American citizens it belongs to us. How do we exercise those rights? Vote. I used it. It worked. I'm happy. At the tribal level, tribal members delegate those powers to tribal councils through voting and with electing a chief, which in 1977 the tribe amended its tribal constitution to elect the chief. Chief Martin ran for the very first election of chief and guess what? He lost; he lost. That was during the [gerald] Ford administration, I remember because right after the Nixon administration Ford had a hard time getting things going again and so did this, the first chief, the first identified chief had a difficult time. And then after his four-year term was up, Chief Martin then ran and was successful and was elected the second chief of the tribe. The tribal council then delegated and established the tribal court, as we talked about earlier within the issue of the reorganizational slide that I showed you.

Principles of the expression of sovereignty: the fundamental expression is the formation of tribal government and the determination of tribal membership, which continues to be a pressing issue for all tribes. We've seen it in California of where people get disenrolled. We've seen it in various tribes, even within my own tribe. There have been informal discussions about dropping the blood quantum. Our constitution says a half or more and they'd like to see it drop down to a fourth. Will that happen? I don't know, but it is a strong discussion that's taking place right now. And membership is key. Membership: I have a really big issue with membership because membership, as defined by the federal government, is based on blood quantum. Well, if I'm a full-blooded Choctaw, my family relocated to Chicago, grew up there, never came back to the reservation, don't know the language, don't know the ceremonies, but I'm full blood based on what my papers tell me, aAnd then you have a child who is a quarter Choctaw, family lives on the reservation, family's very well known in the community, they participate with the tribe, they know the language, they speak the language, they're fluent, they're involved in ceremonies. So why is it that we look at a document that tells me that this person isn't qualified to be a Choctaw? What kind of weight does that have? As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't. It holds no weight, because it's who you are as a Choctaw person, who you are as a Navajo, who you are as Eastern Band of Cherokee. It's who you are. There are big conversations, like I said, concerning membership that [are] taking place and it's a hard call, it really is. It's a very hard call.

And then you have the legislative expressions, adopting tribal ordinances and laws, which they do. The tribe meets four times a year, holds their regular business meetings as well as special called meetings. Throughout my tenure with the court, we've developed new codes in regards to domestic violence, having a code that addresses that specifically, and even within that code there were issues concerning who we are as Choctaw people and having to look at these models that we were given and 'Choctaw-izing' it because some of the things that -- which you may or may not agree with --hindered or conflicted with culture. And that's not to say that I'm sitting here a proponent of domestic violence, that's not it, but it's trying to get this message out that when an offense is committed, for example, concerning firearms, because that was the issue at hand, as a tribal man you went out hunting. And so if I am found guilty of domestic violence, I can no longer have a firearm, which interfered with their hunting which is a part of the culture. And it was a really big issue, that code was tabled so many times because it went back and forth, but it finally was passed. They made amendments to it. Instead of not ever allowing them to have a firearm, they penalized them for five years. I, for one, did not agree with that and wanted to stick with what we had laid out at the beginning, but I knew it was a cultural question. And these are hard things, these are hard things and this is just an example of what councils have to deal with. That's just one part of it, that's not even the business aspects of it. And then of course you have your administrative portion of it where your tribal leadership has an administration, which basically deals with the day-to-day operations and execution of social programs and services. And then you have the judiciary, which is the tribal courts, the enforcements of unwritten law and written law.

Well, what is tribal law? For us, in our general provisions, we have our customary law, we also have the tribal code and then when the code is silent we go to federal and state law as well. And if I'm blocking anybody please tell me, I will move myself because I know I can be a big gray blip on the screen. We also have -- as I stated earlier -- a peacemaking code. And I'll tell you, it wasn't very well embraced at the beginning because at that time people...and people in general, in general society, they want their time in court. They want to be before that judge and they want to tell you why that person is guilty, but what does it really solve? Does it really solve the issue at hand? Because sometimes the issue that's brought before the court is just the very tip of the iceberg, you're not really getting the full story. When we began looking at the development of this division of court, we had the opportunity to go down to Navajo Nation and to visit with their peacemaking court and the communities knew this and we brought that information back. And so then we began operating the court. And there was a lot of comment, "˜Well, this is just Navajo court. You're trying to operate Navajo court.' But it wasn't because, as we know historically, living in a society, living in a community, you had rules, you had laws. It may not have been written, but there were laws and rules of your society that you knew. For tribes, it was oral; you knew it, it wasn't written down anywhere, they told you, they talked with you, you listened. And so we got this peacemaker division going.

You'd think we would have had the opportunity to have a case that was just minimal, just real basic. Nope, not the case. There's a family in one of our outlying communities, major issues, very dysfunctional family. The father was a very aggressive...he was a bully, he was a community bully and also an alcoholic, which doesn't mix well either. And he was stirring up issues and for people to tell you that they're afraid to be at their home, that they didn't feel safe in their community is hard to imagine, but you had people feeling like that. He was having issues with another family, the Hatfields and McCoys almost, and it was getting to that point. What ended up tipping this entire issue and bringing it to court was that these young boys from this particular family, the bully's family, went into the home of an elderly person, an elderly woman, hurt her, stole from her and vandalized her home. Well, let me tell you, the charges started flying. We had cases being filed, counter filed, it was just loading us up, and it got to a point where we had to sit down and talk with the community because we weren't going to be able to get down and resolve the root of the problem. And so it took some time -- it took six months. It took a long time to finally get a lot of the people in. There was about a total of 35 people were involved in this entire issue and I applauded the peacemaker. He was very diligent and he got...he made it happen. And I think one of the other things that helped him was that he was a minister. But it happened and they sat down and they talked.

As much as people said, "˜Well, this is Navajo court,' and it wasn't. And I respect Navajo court, don't get me wrong and I'm not putting Navajo court in a poor light or anything, but we Choctaw-ized this process and it was a process we already had, but it was a more structured process. We were able to bring in people who would also help facilitate this issue. Six months of going back and forth, of talking, letting people vent, and it does escape me at the moment, but whatever the issue was, it was minimal, it was so minimal, but it grew arms and legs and it took off. And I know how some people can be, they don't forget. They don't forget in the sense of they're angry and upset with you, but they can't remember what it was they were angry and upset about and because my grandma was, I am too. I don't know why she was, but I am too. And so it was getting down to those root issues. And that's how it was very therapeutic, very therapeutic for the community. Another side note to this though: the bully continued. So, unfortunately, we ended up excluding him from the tribe, but we had the support of the community and that's a hard thing to do. You certainly don't want to be excluded from your community, but if you're a detriment and creating an unsafe community, there are no alternatives and that is a part of our code as well, which makes our code unique as it does with other tribes as well.

Of course we have the written laws, constitution, our ordinances, codes, we have opinions and decisions that we have for our tribal courts and is available for review. And then of course the additional laws, written laws that we have are peacemaker resolution orders, which in this instance they do hold the strength and power of an order of court, of formal court, which is a very unique thing. Okay, if we can go on. I want us to have time to talk so you have the handout. These are pretty basic pieces of information that you're very well aware of and I'm not going to go over those things, but these are the types of cases that Choctaw court deals with: of course child adoptions, protection and custody issues, alcohol-related crimes and other social crimes, domestic violence, commercial cases. We have a very strong civil court, which deals with a lot of the cases because of the economic development that the tribe is involved in. One of the first things -- and as practitioners you need to know -- one of the first things that lender is going to ask the tribe is, "˜Well, if there's a dispute, where is it going to be heard? Where is it going to be heard?' And time and time again they say, "˜It will be heard in tribal court. It will be heard in Choctaw tribal court.' Now, if you don't have a stable and consistent court system, and let me tell you, you know as well as I do, our legal community is small. Information goes from one end of the coast to the other. Information goes faster now with internet. If you don't have a stable system, they're not going to do business with you. They just won't do it. We also have, of course, repossession, which falls under civil, you have youth court issues, traffic, and of course our peacemaker issues.

So what's on the horizon? What's on the horizon for courts and for governments? We must be aware of the upcoming policy changes. We know that there can be negative impacts on governments, specifically on courts. We struggle yearly as to the types of funding, well, what are we going to get? As a system, how much money will we get from the federal government? How is this particular act going to affect us? There was the issue of the Tribal Justice Act back in the "˜90s. Sure, you put an act together, but you didn't give us any money and it had a lot of good pieces in it, of strengthening tribal justice systems, but when you don't fund it, it's only as good as whatever the ink you used to sign the thing with. And as we know, federal policy has been characterized by dramatic shifts and you have these here. And of course the Self-Determination Act, which followed after termination. So I say all that to say this: it is critical that you're aware as practitioners of what's happening out there in the landscape because what affects one will ultimately affect us all. And so you must always look at any type of policy development with the backdrop of the tribe, of tribal sovereignty, of the federal trust responsibility, of the government-to-government relationships that have to occur, and that have to be cultivated and have to be perpetuated and continued. And that laws and policies have to be unique and specific for Native Americans. I say specifically for Choctaw because that's the tribe I'm representing.

So, in closing, we must continue this pursuit of self-determination. We have to encourage this with our governments, with our people, with the courts and the protection of our sovereignty not only within our courts, but also outside of our courts is very important. Again, building collaborative relationships within tribal, state and federal governments, through inter-government agreements such as the accord that I talked about and then here on the federal level with the ICWA.

A story I'd like to share with you. When I first came on the bench for the Supreme Court, I sat down with one of my mentors and I said, "˜I want to make a difference here. I want us to take this system to a level of respect because we, like everybody else, got beat up. "˜Kangaroo court! They don't know what they're doing! We need new people!' What is it that we can do?' And we had a really good brainstorming session in talking about the things that I wanted to do. Now, let me again remind you, I live in the State of Mississippi, and we've never had a strong and positive rapport with state government. One of the things I had wanted to do was to open a door and to have dialogue with our counterparts, which had never ever happened. And in early 2000, the chief justice of the Supreme Court for the State of Mississippi came down to Choctaw with his associate justice and we sat down not so much as judges, but as people and talked about a lot of issues. That one conversation sparked a lot of other activity. We began having these exchanges, having the opportunity to go and speak to the judges of the state, having their justices come down and talk to our bar and talk to our government. And it's those types of relationships that many tribes don't have the opportunity to develop for whatever reason.

Also, we worked very diligently with our U.S. District Attorney. Now as some of you may recognize, those are very difficult relationships to have and sometimes you may have a U.S. District Attorney who just doesn't give a crap, isn't going to work with you, who could care less. But we had the good fortune of having a U.S. District Attorney by the name of Jack Lacy who was phenomenal. He retired recently, but he left such a great legacy in the sense of working with this tribe and we were able to have many cases that may have been...that may not have ever been brought before the federal court happen and go through and it was because of his own diligence as well. But it was having that relationship, cultivating that relationship, and that is very important for those of you who may end up working with tribes. It's very key.

And then lastly but not leastly, learning from other tribes and sharing successes and challenges. As you can tell, I love to talk and I love sharing this story and I love sharing other stories, but we learn so much more from these exchanges that we have. And sometimes we're all on the same page, we all have the same passion for the people and for working for the people because these investments that we make, and it may sound like a cliché, is for our future generations to come and it's laying these strong foundations for them. But it's also cultivating this generation that's to come to lead us and they need to have the proper tools, they need to know that there is a strong government, they need to know that there is a strong form of court, they need to understand what it means to vote, what it means to stand up for what's right, and it's having that ability to share these types of things with other tribes, what their successes, what their challenges are and working together because what we fix or are able to do for one has far reaching effects for all of us across Indian Country and it's important. It's important.

So with that, I leave you with this. It's always been my philosophy, the tribal courts are guardians, we are the guardians, we are the gatekeepers, the protectors of the sovereignty, of our children, of our families, of our communities, of our tribe. The strength, respect that you give this system speaks volumes, it creates an atmosphere of trust for the people that it serves and also the respect of those from the outside as well. But more so, it's for the people to feel that when they walk through the door of that justice complex, they know that they have a fair forum that they're going to."

NNI Indigenous Leadership Fellow: Rae Nell Vaughn (Part 1)

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Rae Nell Vaughn, former Chief Justice of the Mississippi Choctaw Supreme Court, discusses the critical role that justice systems play in the rebuilding of Native nations and shares how the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has worked to develop its justice system to reflect and promote its culture and meeting the evolving challenges that it faces.

Resource Type
Citation

Vaughn, Rae Nell. "NNI Indigenous Leadership Fellow (Part 1)." Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 15, 2009. Interview.

Ian Record:

"What role do tribal justice systems play in rebuilding Native nations?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"It's been my experience that it plays a significant role in regards to tribal government. One thing that I have found within the 11 years of my judicial experience is the fact that tribal governments as a whole have had to play a role of catch-up, fast tracked. In regards to Mississippi Choctaw, we established our constitution in 1945 at a point in time where we were living in very oppressed conditions. Of course, as you know, historically the tribe was removed to Oklahoma and we're the descendants of the members that chose to stay. No federal or state recognition at that point up until the time of recognition and the development of our constitution, and it was a building process. You had a number of leaders who would step up and were wanting to form a strong government. Of course, the justice system itself came in years later, but overall they've had to try to fast track a government in order to provide the people with services, and it was a struggle, it was a definite struggle. And of course ultimately, a justice system was developed under the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs], a court of regulations, a CFR [Code of Federal Regulations] court, and that had its challenges all on its own because you have the mechanisms but not the resources to provide law and order. And your reliance was on the BIA and it was a definite struggle during the early years of this system. You had a membership maybe at that time of close to 3,000 possibly.

Now going back historically, the membership dwindled down in the early 1900s to less than 1,000 because of the influenza epidemic and here we are in 2009 and have a membership of 10,000. And you talk about a flourishing economy at some point with the successes of this tribe, but you also talk about the population growth and with it coming the social ills and influences that impact a community. And so I've seen this system evolve, even prior to my interaction with it, becoming a judge. It's grown by leaps and bounds. They started off with a staff of maybe three: a tribal member judge -- when it was under the control of BIA -- and maybe one or two folks that also participated. And to this point, once...during my tenure as a judge, we were up to 32 employees. You had 11 members on the judiciary, which is so unheard of, but for me it was a signal from the government [that], 'This is important. A justice system for this government is important and we are investing in our government and in our people to provide them a fair form of justice.' Knowing where we're at, we're located in Mississippi, and the struggles that minorities have faced, Native people have faced, has always been there, an underlying issue. And so being able to have our people be in a forum that's fair for them, being judged by their peers was the most important thing. But also it was the fundamental exercise of sovereignty, operating a system, a judicial system, which not many tribes have had the ability to do and maybe not to the degree that we've been able to do it. That's not to say that there haven't been any challenges. There are, just like there are with any system, whether it's a tribal system or non-Native system, but it's a work in progress. Codes are forever changing and you have to keep your hand on...keep on the pulse of what's happening nationally because what happens nationally will ultimately affect you locally.

And so cases such as Nevada v. Hicks, issues of jurisdiction, those have far-reaching ramifications. So having a stable, consistent, and well-educated and well-trained judiciary is very important, and those are the things that I think tribal governments really have to take a look at and recognize the investment that you're making."

Ian Record:

"And I would assume that in that understanding of what's going on nationally, it's not just the judiciary that has to understand, it's elected leadership and particularly the legislators, the ones that are making those laws to say, "˜We've got to be out front on these issues so we're not stuck in a corner one day in the near future having to react defensively to something we're not prepared for.'"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Exactly. We have to be proactive. It hits every area of government: economic development, education, healthcare. We have to be very diligent and we have to go the extra mile in making sure that we're protecting our sovereignty and at the same time being aware of what the landscape is looking like politically. There have been times in previous [U.S. presidential] administrations where they haven't been quite so favorable to Native Americans. And we may be here at a time of renaissance where there's going to be more participation, more of us as Native people at the table speaking on our behalves, on our own behalf. As a Native person, this is where I've been, this is what we've gone through and this is what we can do and this is what we want to provide for the people, because at times Native people get lost in the shuffle of all the social programs and issues that the federal government itself is dealing with. There are some tribes that are very fortunate to have the additional revenues to provide for their tribes and some aren't. How do we all work together to make sure that each of these tribes are able to have the type of support to be able to function and exercise as a government?"

Ian Record:

"Mississippi Choctaw's court system was recognized by the Honoring Nations program at the Harvard Project in American Indian Economic Development just a few years ago. And in large part it was recognized because of its ability to exercise or to be a vehicle for sovereignty for the nation. Based on your experience in that system, in that court system, I was wondering if you could speak to this issue of strong independent court systems and what those look like, what do those systems require to be effective?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"That's a very good question, because it's a challenge that all tribal court systems face. And let me say that the Honoring Nations program was such an excellent exercise for us, because as a system you're in the trenches every day and you don't realize the things that you're doing have such far-reaching impact. And so when we began this process of going through the rigors of the Honoring Nations project program, I was just so amazed. "˜We're doing so much here, we're looking at alternative resources and programs, we're trying to look at things more holistically versus using the American jurisprudence of dropping the gavel and that's it,' because we recognize that within Native communities we're going to be among one another. I'm not moving anywhere, you're not moving anywhere, we're staying in this community, and it's trying to ensure that we have healthy communities and using the justice system and possibly not just going before formal court, using our peacemaker court, using teen court, using our healing-to-wellness court, are other alternatives that are available to the membership and it goes back to our own Native teaching of who we are. We were never a people -- as with other tribes -- that all we wanted to do was fight amongst one another, but of course all of this takes place based on social influences and evolution of things and prosperity. And so going back to your question, it requires due diligence among both sides of the aisle, the legislative body, the executive as well as the judiciary. And it's a really hard balance because I'm a member of the community, I have children who attend the schools, I'm a voting member, I see people at the post office or at the grocery store, I attend ceremonies, I'm involved just as all the other judges are; simply because we put on a robe during the day doesn't mean that that robe ever really comes off, but we also have to be able to be participatory in our communities. And it is, it's a hard balance, even with your legislative body because we all know each other, we've all grown up with one another possibly or they've seen you grow up and know your mother and there's this tendency of picking up the phone and saying, "˜Hey, what's going on and do you know da da da da da?' And it is, it's a really hard balance because of the close ties and the close knitness of the community and it's that community mentality that you have. But we work diligently to ensure that the people recognize that this is a very independent justice system. Now granted, in the case of Mississippi Choctaw, we're a two-branch government. The court system is developed by statute and is controlled, maybe that's not a good word, but is under the oversight of the tribal council as well as the executive. There've been times where it's been challenging because you wear two hats. Not only are you a member of the judiciary, but you have to be an advocate for the system, and so there's that give and take, development of codes. How can I not be somewhat participatory in the development when I'm the one who uses that code in order to...we're creating law basically, and there are several instances where it's almost a gray area that you enter, but knowing what the spirit of the law is and where we are as a judiciary and what we're trying to accomplish I think speaks volumes because the people see the separation. And it's something that you have to work at every day. You just, you have to."

Ian Record:

"So in your role as advocate for the system in strengthening the system, do you find yourself compelled at certain points to say to the legislature, "˜Look, there's...I'm dealing with these...this area of jurisprudence, these types of cases are becoming more prevalent. There's nothing on the books that tells me how to interpret these cases. It's up to you to get out in front of this,' as you mentioned, "˜and develop law that I can then enforce in the court system?'"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Exactly. One case in point is the Tribal Notice Act and that's very important, especially if you have two parties coming in and there's an issue that could possibly have a detrimental impact on the tribe, maybe possibly in regards to jurisdiction. And the tribe needs to know; the tribe needs to be noticed. And so we worked towards getting that on the books and we were successful. And it's a mechanism or a code that's been used a number of times. And so things of that sort, because you recognize or the people recognize the legislative body and executive body, they're dealing with so many different issues from economic development, healthcare, education, housing. There's not one person or one area that they're focusing in on. So I would not be doing my duty if I didn't bring things to their attention that I think could provide betterment for the system and also protecting the people as well."

Ian Record:

"So you're also, in addition to your experience, your 11 years as you mention serving on the Choctaw judiciary, you've since...you left that, your tenure with the judiciary, and you've been working to evaluate other tribal court systems. And I was wondering if you could speak to this issue. We discussed this recently about some tribes, some tribal leadership not really treating the judicial function of their nation as an independent...as an independent function, as a true arm of the government, whether you want to call it a 'branch' or what have you, but rather treating it as a program. And we hear this a lot from particularly tribal judges who lament that fact that, "˜We're just considered another program.' I was wondering if you could speak to that issue and what you're seeing on the ground."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Oh, yeah. And it's not so much with the work that I'm doing, but additionally with my participation with the national organization, the judges association, as well as my own experiences with Mississippi Choctaw. There's the thinking that tribal court systems are more situated or in the organizational things as a program, and either we fund you or we don't or...there's not that understanding of the importance of justice systems and how in regards to economic development, justice systems are key. And a lot...I've heard so many war stories about how we are treated as -- I hate to use the term -- as stepchildren. We get the hand-me-down equipment, we get the little bits of whatever is additional that we can get in our budget, but what I found throughout my work and my experiences with the judiciary is the fact that there are so many good people out there in Indian Country, members of their own tribe who want to provide a forum, a fair forum for their people and they work diligently with what resources they have. Now if it was a perfect world and we were able to get all that we want, that would be ideal, but it's not and a number of tribes who don't have the additional resources struggle, and for some of these tribes it's a really challenging thing because you're also not only at the mercy of the government, but at the community as well and there...if you don't feel that support from your government, then obviously the community's not going to support you as well and those are some key things that have to happen is to have that support. 'Now you and I may argue here, but when we step out as a judiciary and as a government, we need to be unified, because each of us as a legislative body and as an executive body and whether we're a judicial branch or a statutory court, we still have to work and maintain as a stable government,' because if your leadership is bad mouthing your judicial system, what does that say of the leadership?"

Ian Record:

"What does that say to the outside world?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Exactly."

Ian Record:

"So this issue of treatment by the leadership, by the community of the justice system as a program versus something more, among those tribes that tend to treat them as the latter -- just as a program -- aren't they missing the boat essentially on the importance of justice systems as a vehicle for not only advancing sovereignty, but also creating viable economies on the reservations and pretty much all around?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Exactly, because a lender who is thinking about doing business with the tribe is going to ask, "˜I need to know about your court system. I need to know where litigation is going to take place,' and if they can't see a system that is stable and consistent, you're possibly missing an opportunity to bring strong economic development to your area and that's key. I think a lot that has to happen is education. Now again, I go back -- I recognize there's so much that tribal government has to do. They're overloaded, they're understaffed in some instances, and they're trying to do the best they can do, but at the end of the day it's important to make sure that each of your areas of government are strong and are working together and that's where your checks and balances are. It's basic civics."

Ian Record:

"One other issue we discussed recently was this issue of...this treatment of tribal justice systems as nothing more than programs may emanate in part from this sense of, "˜Well, that's where the bad things happen.'"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Oh, yes."

Ian Record:

"...That's where, kind of the social ills bubble up, that's where the kind of the underbelly of the community, the negative parts. "˜We don't want to deal with that. It's too painful,' or 'We don't...we're at a loss as to how to resolve these issues.' How do you get beyond that mentality? How do you get to a point where -- as you've told me -- where the people, the community, that the leadership will treat the justice system as a vehicle for not only restoring, as you say restoring health to the community, but also as a way to, for instance, teach the values of the people to say, "˜This is how we operate, this is how we resolve disputes.'"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"One of the bad things or the negative side of the judicial system is the fact that a lot of things happen in the well of that court and at the end of it all, "˜It's the court,' "˜It's the court's fault,' or whatever it may be because it's surfaced, it has bubbled up as you said, it's surfaced and there it is black and white, right there in the well of that court. And ultimately it's the judge and their discretion as how they rule or decide or what it is that they end up doing for that particular case, whether it be a habitual offender, whether it be a family in need, a juvenile delinquent, a vulnerable adult. All of the social ills of your community hits right there and it is challenging more so again for your legislative body and your executive because what do they do, what can they do? We've developed so many different social programs, but we're not going to cure every ill, and unfortunately a lot of those things surface through court. And as I shared with you earlier, that's why we were looking at, in regards to Mississippi Choctaw, of other alternatives. We recognize these are social illnesses. This is not working, going through formal court. Something has to happen and it also has to happen not only with the individual, but with the family: accountability, responsibility, bringing in the people who matter the most to you and who you value, who are your mentors or your grandparents, your minister, your family to sit down and talk with you, help you in a peacemaking-type situation, a circle of sorts. Healing to Wellness [Court] is set up in that very same way, that we have there at Choctaw where the offender comes in, meets with a group of multi-disciplinary team and there's a check, there's this constant check, and we've had so many success stories come through there. Is it 100 percent? No, it's not, and it probably will never be, but there is an alternative, and with the one case that you have a success in, [it] ripples out to the family, to the community, to the nation in regards to the offenses, health issues that may have come from it, all the different things. And that success just can only breed more success because if you have this individual whose gone through this process, you see the community, see that individual being successful and others who are coming before the court say, "˜I want to try that because I'm ready to make that change,' then there's that vehicle."

Ian Record:

"So I would assume under the CFR system, there's no way that you guys could have developed these restorative functions."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"There is no way, no."

Ian Record:

"So essentially by developing your own court system, by taking ownership of that critical function, you provided yourself the freedom to say, "˜What's going to benefit our community in the long run? What's the best way of doing things, because the status quo is simply not working.'"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"No, it's not working and it doesn't work in Indian Country. And what may work for Choctaw, what may work for the tribes in the east may not work for tribes in the southwest or in the west or in the northwest or in the midwest or northeast. It works for us and looking at the different models you can see things that will work. There's this term I use, "˜Choctaw-izing it' -- making it your own, bringing in Choctaw values, culture, customary law into this model and it works, and it works, and the people understand it. That's the thing, the people say, "˜Hmmmm, yes, I know what you're talking about.'"

Ian Record:

"So can you give me just a...you mentioned this term 'Choctaw-izing' it. Can you give me one example, maybe one case of how the court system applied a core value of the Choctaw people to essentially try to bring that restoration to the community?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"As I shared with you earlier, we have a teen court process and in that process the individual, the juvenile delinquent goes through the formal youth court system. Teen court is more of a sentencing type court, but the uniqueness of it is they are judged, are sentenced by their peers, other teenagers in the community. We had a particular instance where there was this child who of course offended, committed a crime against the tribe, was found delinquent. The case wasn't or the offense wasn't to the level of the judge issuing the sentence so he transferred it to teen court and it went through the process, but the uniqueness is -- and this is where the cultural aspect came in -- is we had the judge bring the mother and the grandmother and auntie because we are a matrilineal society. And before the sentence was rendered by the peers, by the jury, the women stood up and they talked and they talked with both sides of the parties who were there -- because this was a boyfriend-girlfriend, teenager-type thing -- and how it was important to respect your family, respect your parents, to listen, and if that wasn't the most empowering thing along with their peers giving them the sentencing, I don't know what would be. It was so powerful and moving. And let me tell you, people sat up and took notice and you gave respect, you listened. And that's one instance where that...we were able to have that and that was just such a learning tool for our young people to sit there and go through that and to listen. Even though they weren't the offenders, but they knew exactly, they knew exactly. It was almost like a reawakening. "˜I know this, but we don't do it all the time,' and like, "˜Whoa!'"

Ian Record:

"So in that instance, the court was not even an intermediary between the community, the culture, and the issue at hand. They were actually just a mechanism for connecting those two."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Facilitating just basically, just putting those people and things together. And it's...one thing of...and when I first entered the court system I served as a youth court judge. And the one thing I would tell our kids, when they'd come before the bench and with that attitude, being rebellious, and "˜You can't tell me what to do,' is, "˜The offense you've committed, you think maybe committed against this particular individual or this particular family or to the school, vandalism, whatever.' I said, "˜But you're not hurting those particular individuals, you're hurting the tribe, and in essence you're hurting yourself. So what has to happen here is you have to make this right and you're making it right at the end of the day for yourself.' And for some kids it didn't click, of course being rebellious and angry and everything, but for some it did. They understood. And again, you never really had a lot of successes. You had some successes and statistically Native American Country and as well as in dominant society you knew that there were higher chances of your young people moving into the adult system, but we tried very hard and that's why we were looking at all these other alternatives. Many Native communities have such small memberships, and so when you have a lot of delinquency going on, number-wise it may not appear to be a lot, but there on the ground it's epidemic and that's one of the things governments need to recognize and why it's such an important thing to make sure that you're supporting and investing in all of these types of things that keep your system, your justice system strong, consistent and stable."

Ian Record:

"So what do you see as the major challenges facing tribal jurisdiction today?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Oh, my goodness. That's something that tribes are facing all the time and it's amazing to me how we do have the jurisdiction that we do have. There have been challenges locally, and as I'm trying to think back here, we've had a number of cases that we've dealt with ourselves at Mississippi Choctaw where you have a civil matter that came before the court and they were running concurrently with the circuit court, the federal court. And it was an issue concerning a, it wasn't a loan company, a bank, it was a bank and a big problem with a salesperson going into the community and of the lender reneging of sorts -- just a really basic background of that case. And tribal members who had signed up for this service, which I believe was a satellite case, then did a class action against the lender. The party then went to the federal court, the federal court in turn sent the case back telling the parties that, "˜You have to exhaust tribal jurisdiction before you can even attempt to make it here,' which I think said a lot for not only our tribe, but for tribes in Indian Country to have a federal court say, "˜You have to exhaust all remedies before you even make it here.' Now you and I both know that that's not commonplace and I think that sent a very, very big message. Why would that have ever been decided? I think a lot of it had to do with the court itself because it was a functional court, it is a functional court, renders opinions, clear decisions and it's consistent. And I think that had a lot to do with why we were able or the federal court made the decision it made.

Now Indian Country, tribes in Indian Country are constantly faced with issues of jurisdictions and I can't speak so much for these other tribes, but just from the readings I've seen and in the issues that I've heard about, it's constant. For example, I know that there was a tribe in California that had the state come in wanting to look at employment records. If that wasn't a clear crossing of the line, a failure of respect of another sovereign, I don't know what is and that's clearly overstepping jurisdictional lines. But those types of things happen and that's where you really have to, as a government, make sure that you have the type of legal representation for yourself to protect you as a tribe because you have it coming from every angle, from every area of wanting to chip away at what jurisdiction you do have. It's bad enough that we don't have criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians and as a gaming tribe there's a lot of issues that we have to deal with and we're at the mercy of the county or we're at the mercy of the federal government and its system. It makes no sense to me. Logically, we know when, I know when I cross the boundary and I go into Philadelphia, if I commit a crime, I'm going to be dealt with in Philadelphia court. It's a no-brainer. And this is an issue that's been talked about time and time again. I know I'm not going to change it, but I'm going to give you my two cents. It sucks, it's not productive and there are people who agree. There are people on the outside who do agree that you should have the ability to incarcerate, to judge any individual who commits a crime, an offense against the tribe or this jurisdiction. And we don't have that ability. And then you have the civil jurisdiction, which is always being tested and 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 iron-clad so that you can't...it won't be unraveled and then there you go, you've lost more jurisdiction."

Ian Record:

"And it's not just making the decisions, it's actually documenting those decisions and having those ready in an accessible fashion, and that's where it's important to build the system of justice not just have judges making decisions."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Yes, exactly. You're exactly right because you have a lot of these systems that are in varying degrees of development and I am a big believer of having tribal members sitting on the court. Unfortunately, you don't have enough people who come to the court, come to the bench with a legal background. I'm not law trained. And so it's challenging and it's a struggle. Fortunately, our tribe made investments of having individuals on the bench with the juris doctorate providing us with legal technical consultation so that we're not standing there twisting in the wind, "˜Well, what do we do?' And so we're able to have this body of law, opinions that come from this court, that are guiding tools for not only us as a tribe, but also for other tribes should they wish to use it. I know that there are different companies or organizations who collect all of these opinions across Indian Country, which is good so that there is a body of law for other tribes to go in and take a look at and look at precedent and things of that sort. And we need more of that, but what we also need to do is be able to reach out and get this information to people. As I said earlier, you have a number of people whose systems are at varying degrees, tribes whose systems are at varying degrees and there are times where I think we do a disservice. Again, I am a big proponent for having tribal members on the bench, but you also have to be able to have someone there who is knowledgeable and can understand law, the analysis, the logic and to be able to generate really good opinions and good decisions. Are we right all the time? No, not necessarily, even those who have the jurisprudence isn't right all the time, but it's based on interpretation."

Ian Record:

"So it's really important then for tribes to invest in capacity in not only of people...tribal members who eventually will be judges, but also those clerks and other people in law enforcement."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Because let me tell you, those clerks are down on the ground doing all the work and there have been instances where I have seen they have ultimately become judges and they come in with all the knowledge of working every facet of that system in the sense of dealing with attorneys, looking at orders. It's amazing to me. Some of these clerks that I've talked with in my travels would say, "˜Yeah, I knew that wasn't what needed to happen.' It's just amazing the knowledge, the experience they gain and I have seen many instances where some of these clerks did step up or were appointed to serve as a judge and made excellent judges because they had the hands-on training and going through the process of the documentation, the order development and things of that sort. So it's key, it's very key in regards to having strong judges training and education."

Ian Record:

"So backing up a bit to what you were discussing a few minutes ago and this issue of...essentially, what you were talking about was transparency and jurisprudence, that it's not enough just to make decisions. You have to make sure that those decisions are clear, that they're open to not only the citizens of the nation, but to the outside world and that they're understandable and that they're accessible. Is that what Mississippi Choctaw has done? Is that what you're seeing other tribes starting to do? Are more nations really beginning to understand the importance of transparency in jurisprudence?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"For Mississippi Choctaw, yes, it's something that we strive for; it's not cloak and dagger, it's no big secret. Whatever decision is rendered and the opinion is generated, we had a procedure where we informed all arms of government, especially if it was something that was very critical, maybe a jurisdictional issue, something that would affect the tribe. They received notice, they received a copy of the opinion, and then in general opinions that were generated from the Supreme Court, that's 101. You need to get them to see this and also there may be messages in these opinions that say, "˜Look, this is how we ruled, but if we don't make changes to the body of the law that we have, we're going to hit this time and time again. You might want to think about it, but we're not telling you...we're not changing the law, we're not going to change this piece of legislation, but we want you to think about it.' And so it is, transparency is important. Again, going back to the issue of where tribal courts are and the varying degrees they are, those more established courts such as Navajo Nation have a large body of opinions and a body of law there that you can...I tap into it. I've tapped into that as well as Eastern Band of Cherokee -- your bigger, more established systems. And so you have that transparency there, but again it goes back to where the systems are in development."

Ian Record:

"I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about an ever-present dynamic in tribal jurisprudence and that is tribal politics and there's a reason why you're laughing. I assume you know exactly what I'm talking about."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"It's the bullseye right there."

Ian Record:

"But I wanted to get your sense of what you've seen in terms of the impacts of political interference in tribal jurisprudence and dispute resolution and essentially how far-reaching those things can be."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"There are many tribes that face this very question of political interference. And it's a hard line to walk, it really is. I think a lot of it has to do with who you are as a person and your integrity and what you yourself are willing to allow and not allow. And at the end of the day, just like I tell my children, "˜If it's an issue that you're really passionate about and you know this is what you need to do, sometimes you're standing by yourself,' and as judges that's ultimately what we end up doing is end up there standing by ourselves and telling whomever it may be, "˜No, you cannot cross this line.' Are there ramifications for those choices? Yes, in some instances there are. And that's unfortunate because of the messages that it sends not only to your community, but -- again as we talked about earlier -- to the outside world. If an individual makes a decision and in the eyes of the government it's perceived as a bad decision and it possibly wasn't in favor of what they wanted and they make sweeping change, who is going to want to step up and serve if there's the possibility of failing to comply or abide by what they're wanting. When you step up and become a judge, all of what you may have supported or your political views all fall by the wayside. Your primary concern is the interpretation of law, dealing with that case that's before you, that's it -- not what the politics are because they cannot be influential, they cannot be influential to what you're doing because if that's the case, then why have a court? Why not let the tribal council run the court? They want to, I know they do, but it's again checks and balances and the maintaining of independence. And I see it time and time again. I've heard so many war stories."

Ian Record:

"Yeah, we see some tribes that still have, particularly with those tribes that have Indian Reorganization Act systems of government where the standard constitution said, "˜The council can create a court system as it sees fit,' essentially and..."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Oh, in our code it does state that. It says, "˜If funds are available,' and I thought, "˜Well, what does this mean?' But for the time that that code was developed, that's again going back to, "˜Well, is this is a system or is this a program?' It's clear even in our general provisions, "˜If funds are available, we will operate this court.'"

Ian Record:

"Yeah, some of those IRA [Indian Reorganization Act] systems you still see to this day where the root of appeal of a tribal court decision is back to the council."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"And we do have that in Choctaw in some instances. Example, if there's an election challenge the court has no...there's no venue in our area. It goes directly to the tribal council once it goes through the election committee. And there is a valid challenge then it's ultimately the tribal council which makes the decision whether to say, "˜Yes, this is a void election or no, it's not.'"

Ian Record:

"You mentioned a few minutes back the messages that are...the very clear messages that are sent when there is political interference and tribal jurisprudence and I was wondering if you'd maybe perhaps talk about that a little bit more specifically because you mentioned messages not only to the community but to the outside world. What kind of messages do those send when you do see that political interference? And perhaps how does that impact the tribe in the long run?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Oh, yes. It does not put tribal government in a very good light when you have that type of interference. Sometimes it comes across as being more of a dictatorship versus a democracy. It really makes greater society doubt in the ability of that government of being able to provide for the people true leadership. And I know as a sovereign nation there have been other tribes and this is just from my travels and visiting with other jurisdictions and sharing war stories. We are under such a microscope, not only the judicial system, but the overall tribal government in Indian Country. We are constantly being held at an even higher standard. Yes, we need to be at a high standard, yes, but it appears when there's just a small hiccup or a small misstep it's magnified 100 times. "˜Well, you see, that's why we don't deal with that tribe,' for whatever reason it may be and it could be miniscule, but for the outside world it's like waiting. They're lying in wait for you to trip and fall. Choctaw itself has had its ups and downs. There's not a tribe that hasn't. We've seen successes, we've seen challenges, but we continue to persevere because of our membership. We're not going anywhere. At one point we were the third top employer of the State of Mississippi providing economic development, providing income for this state and that speaks volumes. Now we're dealing with the issues of the economy, the national economy and the effects that it's having on our tribe and we're having to act and react to those things and it's not been favorable, but we also have to be sustainable for our people and there are hard decisions that we have to make and we've made those decisions, rightly or wrongly, whatever may be perceived on the outside world, as a sovereign we have to maintain for the people."

Ian Record:

"You mentioned this issue of outsiders are looking very closely at what tribes do and in many respects they're waiting for tribes to mess up and using it as an excuse to say, "˜Okay, either we don't want to deal with them or they shouldn't have sovereignty,' whatever it might be. And I think that's really where court systems are critical because in many respects they're the most tangible connection, the most visible reflection of what tribes are doing and what tribe's abilities are, what their capacity is, how they make decisions. Is that something you've experienced at Choctaw?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Yes, very much so, very much so. We've been fortunate. Legal communities -- whether it's on the reservation or off reservation -- are small and word of mouth is very powerful. People know what's going on, whether they're on the reservation or not, they know what's going on and it's really key on how you bring these people in and how you...and also educating, educating them about what we are and who we are as a sovereign nation. One of the things that we provide as a system is a form of a bar meeting and providing them training, bringing to them things that are happening on the national level, educating them, and that's key -- going out and educating. And that's a lot of what I did as well during my time with the court. I've gone to Harvard, to Southern, to University of Southern Mississippi, to the University of Mississippi Law School, to Mississippi State [University], to a lot of the local universities within the state to talk about this very system. And they're so amazed at one, we're not just this casino that they see talked about on TV. Secondly, that there is a functional government, but what they're also very surprised at going back to what we've talked about earlier is the fact that there is no jurisdiction over non-Indians and that's always been the big, "˜Ah ha. Are you kidding me? How can that be if we're in this country of the land of the free and our constitution, our U.S. Constitution,' but that's what the cards we're dealt with. And that's how fragile these systems and governments are because I'm sure if the federal government wants to, and again looking at how governments are exercising their sovereignty or lack there of, they would be more than willing to come in there. It just says that we have to provide you with health and education, but it doesn't really say to what degree so I can...you'll take what I give you and that's where as sovereign nations we really have to be diligent about our exercise of government and of our sovereignty. We have to be. I know I sound like this...I sound like this caped crusader, "˜We've got to be. Somebody has to be at the gate and it's going to be me,' but there needs...there really needs to be more development of people who understand public service of giving back to the people and we've got to cultivate that."

Ian Record:

"So you've made references to the incredible growth of the Mississippi Choctaw's economy over the past several decades and I'll ask you a very blunt question. Could Mississippi Choctaw when it comes to economic development be where it is today if they, for instance had what's often referred to as a 'kangaroo court'?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"The short answer, no, I don't believe they could be. This system was and is, continues to be an evolving system and I think with the right leadership it was determined that there are certain things we're going to have to put in place in order to be successful and strengthening the court system was one of them. This system was taken into management of the tribe in 1985 and was operating with a very skeletal group of people and then they expanded the service. And then in 1997 there was another reorganization where they developed very distinct divisions of court. This would give the system the capacity to handle all civil matters. We had well over 1,000 people working for the tribe in the hospitality portion of it and of the industrial arm of it. The majority of these people were non-Indian. Where are civil actions going to take place? In our court if they're working for this tribe. You also had, once gaming came into play and tribal members were receiving per capita, a rush of people wanting to enroll and so our enrollment jumped by leaps and bounds from 3,000 to 4,000 to almost 10,000. And so you had to have the ability to handle all the issues that come with the economic growth and the court system and law enforcement are the people that deal with a lot of the day to day issues that come with that prosperity."

Ian Record:

"So in many ways the court system is the primary vehicle for managing growth for tribes."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"I would say so. People may disagree but I would say so."

Ian Record:

"So I wanted to ask you a bit more about this issue of justice systems and how they maintain stability in law and order and how does that... how does the justice system at Choctaw provide that for the people?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Well, we've been fortunate that the tribe has taken over, like I said earlier, management of the law enforcement division. It's now the Department of Public Services, as well as the court system itself. The tribe itself has also contributed to our legal community and I include law enforcement in that and detention as well by providing legal counsel for the tribe. We have an attorney general's office that's set up as well as a legal defense, which is the equivalent of legal aid for individual tribal members and so we have a pretty diverse legal community there. This provides for the community, for the people the ability to be represented within our system, but not only within our system, should there be issues that occur off reservation they have the ability to use legal defense to represent them as well in issues such as maybe child support type issues if it's a non-Indian and Choctaw union and the marriage dissolved and there are challenges and things may end up taking place off reservation for whatever reason. Also, the ability if they need counsel in federal cases as well because you know as well as I do that there's always challenges there where the level of adequacy of representation at the federal level. We've seen time and time again where Native people have just not had proper representation, which also dovetails into the additional work that I do as a commissioner for the Mississippi Access for Justice, ensuring that all people have the ability to have legal representation for their issues. But for the people, just knowing that there's law enforcement, there's a police officer there who is not out there on his own. There's a strong department and when I call I know they'll be here not in three hours, maybe within 30 minutes or 15 minutes depending on the location because we are managing our own law enforcement. What does that say for the greater communities? We're able to assist them as cross-deputized officers, peace officers, to assist them with whatever issues may be taking place. Again, going back to jurisdictional issues, there's always, "˜Well, where are we? Are we on Choctaw land or are we on county land? Where are we?' And so it's a tough call at times. Sometimes somebody has to pull the map out and say, "˜Yeah, well, here's the line.' And so it speaks volumes as to partnerships that have to be developed and strengthened to show stability, for them to see the stability of this system. And it spills over even into the court. We had an instance where there was an issue off reservation with two tribal members being dealt with in the county court and the court was familiar with our peacemaking, Itti Kana Ikbi, court, our traditional form of court. And he called up our peacemaker and said, "˜Look, I have this issue here. I think that it should be better resolved...it could be better resolved with you and peacemaking.' That is unheard of for a county court to turn its jurisdiction over to a tribal court. Even I was taken aback. But societies are changing and there are times of tension in race relations, yes, we recognize that. And to see something like that happen only proves more to me that we as a people, not only tribal members, but as people are changing and recognizing that we are just as capable as our counterparts are and that also signals stability."

Ian Record:

"I think in that particular instance, part of to me is them probably saying, that county court judge saying, "˜Hey, those guys do things, they do it right, they... yes, they have their own systems, their own principles that they administer justice on, but they do it consistently, they do it fairly and I have confidence in turning this over knowing that they'll resolve this dispute in a good way.'"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"That's exactly right. That's exactly right. And so that generated even more conversation and we have a very good rapport with the county courts and so there have been times where other issues, other instances have taken place, but that was just the turning point. And to be quite honest, I never would have thought I would have seen things like that happen in my lifetime. There's always been this sense of separation and I'm sure it is with other Indian tribes. "˜You're the Indian tribe, you're over there. Here we are metropolitan society. You do your own thing and we'll do our own,' but we're all members of the community, of our communities, and it's being able to interact with one another and working for the greater good of the entire people because don't forget, it's the people who are living outside that are probably working for the tribes on the reservation. So there has to be, whether they like it or not, there has to be a relationship."

Ian Record:

"Yeah, we hear this more and more often, this refrain from tribal leaders of, Native nations aren't islands and they can't act like there are. They can't exercise their sovereignty in isolation, that for them to advance their strategic priorities they're going to have to, of their own volition, build these working relationships with other sovereigns, with other jurisdictions, with other governments, with other municipalities in order to advance their priorities and create a better community."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Exactly, and I think that's what has been the successes of what has created an environment of success for our tribe, for Mississippi Choctaw, has been those relationships whether it's local, state or federal, having those relationships not only within your executive branches and legislative branches, but also within your judiciary. Maybe I was in the judiciary the fifth year of my tenure and I had the opportunity, and it was such a very moving moment, when I had the Chief Justice of the State of Mississippi and his associate justice come down. He came down to Choctaw and sat down and had a conversation with me, the Chief Justice of Choctaw Supreme Court, his counterpart to talk about, "˜How can we help one another?' And that's something that is...I couldn't even imagine that happening. And I shared with him... and we got to know one another and we've become good friends and I said, "˜It had to do with the people and the timing.' Everything just came and lined up and it worked. And so we were able...and we have and we've continued that relationship even with the new Chief Justice, that there continues to be and as well as my new counterpart, there continues to be this continuation of the relationship and it has to be. And it's good that it's now recognized."

Ian Record:

"A couple more questions here. This issue of...getting back to the issue of when you have a justice system creating this environment of stability, of law and order, of certainty, of essentially offering a fair forum for the resolution of disputes where people feel that, "˜If I need to go have a case heard, whether I'm an offender or the one that's the victim in this case, that it will be resolved or adjudicated based on the merits of that case.' Doesn't that send a pretty powerful message to not just those outside investors, but also to your own people that, "˜Hey, this is a place where I can come or I can remain and invest my time, invest my resources, invest my skills, my ideas and the future of the nation.'"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"One thing that I know people struggle with is understanding the system and once you enter in and begin going through all the different processes, they then realize how difficult it is to go through the court system per se. And it may have been designed specifically for that, because you certainly don't want frivolous actions coming before the court. You certainly don't want a manipulation of the system and so it's holding all parties accountable. And the messages that it sends to the people, I would hope, and that was always our hope, was that, "˜You will receive fairness here when you walk through these doors. You will see an individual there who is going to render justice, whether it's on your behalf or not, whether it's for you or it's not.' Of course when the person fails to get the decision they want, you have that as well. But I know that in my dealings with the legislative body, they recognize it as well and at times you have to let the community member vent. They're also your constituents and so you've got to let them vent, but also talking them through, "˜Well, this is what it is but you also have the ability to appeal,' which is the beauty of it all. There is still another forum to go to if you're dissatisfied and if it's a true error of law, then you do have another venue to go to. In some instances, most tribes don't have that luxury."

Ian Record:

"Several years ago we were talking with Norma Gourneau, she was...at the time she was the vice chair at Northern Cheyenne, and they were dealing with this issue of...the court judges were just getting steamrolled by councilors every time...they were having a big issue for instance with automobile repossessions by off reservation dealerships and these off reservation dealerships would get a default on a car loan, they'd come on the reservation to get the repo order enforced so they could actually come on the reservation and pick up the car. The tribal member who was in default would go to a council member and say, "˜Oh, I need my car.' The council member would lean on the judge, the judge would rule on the tribe's behalf. Before long nobody's selling cars to tribal members. And so what she said was they put a fix in there. They did a constitutional reform, they insulated the court from political interference and she said, "˜What I found was I had a lot more...I found myself empowered because I wasn't dealing with those issues anymore. I could now...I wasn't putting out those fires of having to interfere in the court system so now I could focus on what was really important for the tribe, which was where are we headed, where are we going and how do we get there?' Is that...do you see that as an important dynamic to have when the court system is insulated from that essentially liberates elected leaders to focus on those things?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"I wish there was more of a way to make that happen for all of us because we all deal with those...again, it goes back to what we talked about earlier -- political interference -- and again it's up to you as an individual of your integrity whether you allow it or not. Yes, they can be pretty quick to apply pressure on you. Yes, we've dealt with those types of things. It was always astonishing to me when a vendor would call and say, "˜Well, this is happening and I'm not getting service, I'm not getting the court system to react quickly enough.' And our council would be so quick to step up for those vendors and I'm like, "˜You have to allow the process to take its paces. It has to go through its paces. You can't speed anything up for anyone in particular. It doesn't matter, it just does not matter.' But yes, we have experienced in the past where because you had a number of tribal members defaulting on a lot of things, businesses begin then questioning, "˜Well, do I really want to do business with a Choctaw?' Not so much about the judicial process itself, but if I'm not going to be getting my money back or if I'm not going to get paid for whatever service I render, is it worth my time? Which is a much bigger question, but going back to insulating yourself, we as a judiciary, as many judiciaries, have canons of ethics and it depends on what those things mean to you. The legislative body as well as the executive body, unfortunately in our instance, don't have canons of ethics and...but those are to me things that are internal. You should have those types of ethics. You should know that it's not proper to go to the judge to say, "˜Change your decision.' It's not proper. You would feel...if there were clear lines of language that said, "˜No, you cannot approach the court,' then the atmosphere would be different. The atmosphere would be very different. Yes, there are tensions, there are questions, "˜Well, what's going to happen with the impact of this decision I've made? How is that going to affect possibly my appointment? Will I still be here in four years?' But if there were that...if there was the ability to have that happen where language could be developed and there were clear separations, you would be able to be in a position to judge more effectively without the fear of repercussion. You would. It's bad enough you have a lot of other things that you have weighing on you as a judge, to have that extra layer put on you and the sad thing is it's your own people, these legislative members are also your members, members of your community and of your tribe. I've heard one councilman tell me...he told me once, there was a case that was being dealt with and he was insistent on trying to get involved, to come in. And I said, "˜It's clear in the code, you can't stand as an advocate. It's clear in the code that you cannot post bond for this...bail for this individual.' And he would tell me real quick, "˜Well, out in this county I'm able to call the judge and da da da da da.' And I said, "˜Well, you know what, that's that court system, not here.' Needless to say, he wasn't my friend anymore, but that's the whole point of it. It's where your integrity lies and you have to. But again, it's also educating, educating the legislative body because of the evolution, the changes of a justice system, what justice systems mean, fairness and that, "˜No, you can't go and ex parte the judge.' It's about fairness and not so much about control. And that's the problem, it is an issue of control."

Ian Record:

"So the tribal code for Choctaw prohibits elected officials from, I guess, involving themselves in court cases in certain respects."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Yes, that's correct. If I as a tribal member would ask a councilman to come in to serve as an advocate or a speaker on their behalf of sorts, it's not allowed. They're not allowed to post bail or bond for anyone. It's right there in black and white, but they still continue to try to do that. I've always told my staff, the judges, when we look at the canons of ethics, "˜It's there to protect you so use it,' tell them that this is what the canons of ethics tell us in regards to appearance of impropriety, of political influence and things of that sort. That's what it's there for. And it's a struggle, it is a struggle and this is something that I know a lot of tribes face, a lot of judges face. It's a hard...it's a hard line to walk because again you are a member of the community, you do not have the ability to blend in with the general populace. It just doesn't happen. Like I said, for our tribe, we're a membership of almost 10,000. We have on the reservation over 6,500 people."

Ian Record:

"Do you think part of it, when elected leaders feel that impulse to interfere on behalf of a constituent, that they maybe haven't gone through the paces perhaps as you've termed it to think, "˜What's the long-term implication of my action here? Because I might be helping,' because that's their feeling, "˜I'm helping this person. I'm helping this person, but am I really helping the nation in the long run because this is going to be the ramifications of this. There's a ripple effect to what I'm doing.'"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Yes, and you're exactly right. I know in some instances their intentions are good, their intentions are good, they do want to help their constituent. They feel that someone needs to step up for them, someone needs to represent them, and maybe for whatever reason the different programs may not be able to help that particular individual, for instance, a vulnerable adult, an elderly person who may be being taken advantage of with his grandchildren taking the monthly check. And so I can see that, but when you don't allow the process to happen and if you don't follow the letter of the law, then the messages that it sends out is that, "˜Well, you can change the rules whenever you want,' and you can't do that. The rules are the rules for everyone, whether you're the community member, whether you're a member of the council, whether you're the chief, the rules are the rules. And although some people may think they might be able to change those rules; that's where the strength of your judiciary is the test not to allow those things to happen. I know within...in Indian Country those things happen where they're tested all the time. Like we talked earlier about jurisdictional issues, everyone is coming at you from different angles and let me tell you, being...living the life of a judge is not an easy thing. It's rewarding at times because you're providing a service to the people, the successes that you see make it worth all that you have to go through, but the political side of it can be at times very disheartening, very discouraging because you're having to deal with this mountain of things that are coming at you and you're trying to do the best you can do for your system. And sometimes people just don't see it the way you see it and it's trying to reach consensus with people, to get them on your side, get them to understand. Education, it's...it always goes back to education, teaching the membership, teaching the legislative body what these systems are all about and how important it is because at the end of the day that's going to be what makes you successful as a people, as a community. For me, it's always been my philosophy that tribal courts are the guardians of sovereignty. It's our job to make sure that we protect this sovereign through the well of the court, through this legal system and it's something that when you take on this judgeship, it's not about the notoriety, it's about what you provide, what you bring to the bench and the protection of the sovereign. That's the bottom line of all of this." 

NNI Indigenous Leadership Fellow: Rae Nell Vaughn (Part 2)

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Rae Nell Vaughn, former Chief Justice of the Mississippi Choctaw Supreme Court, shares how her nation methodically re-integrated Choctaw core values into its administration of justice, and how Mississippi Choctaw's creation of a fair and efficient justice system is paying social, cultural, political and economic dividends. 

Resource Type
Citation

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.

Ian Record:

"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."

Ian Record:

"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."

Ian Record:

"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.'"

Ian Record:

"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..."

Ian Record:

"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."

Ian Record:

"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."

Ian Record:

"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."

Ian Record:

"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."

Ian Record:

"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."

Ian Record:

"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."

Ian Record:

"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." 

Honoring Nations: Rae Nell Vaughn, Dan Mittan, Henderson Williams, Andrew Jones, and Hilda Faye Nickey: The Choctaw Tribal Court System

Producer
Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development
Year

Representatives from the Choctaw Tribal Court System present an overview of the court system's development to the Honoring Nations Board of Governors in conjunction with the 2005 Honoring Nations Awards.

Resource Type
Citation

Jones, Andrew, Dan Mittan, Hilda Faye Nickey, Rae Nell Vaughn, and Henderson Williams. "The Choctaw Tribal Court System." Honoring Nations Awards event. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Tulsa, Oklahoma. November 1, 2005. Presentation.

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"[Choctaw language] Good afternoon, everyone. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the Harvard Project for giving us this opportunity to participate in this exercise. It's really been an education for all of us. Before we begin our presentation, if I could have the group step here into the light. They're off to the wing there. I'd like to introduce members of the Choctaw delegation who are here and also in the audience. We have with us Senior Peacemaker, Mr. Henderson Williams; Andrew Jones, who serves as Diversion Coordinator under the Court Services Department. We also have Senior Judge Hilda Nickey, who serves as the Youth Court Judge. And we also have somewhere, there on the opposite end of the stage, Mr. Dan Mittan, who serves as Director of Court Services.

I'd also like to take a moment and recognize and introduce to the audience and to the board of governors here our tribal council members from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and if they would stand to be recognized please. The light is pretty bright and I'm having a hard time in seeing them. We have Councilman Mr. Charlie Nickey from the Conehatta Community; Mr. Tony Martin, representative of the Tucker Community; Mr. Ronnie Henry, representative of the Boque Chitto Community; Ms. Phyliss Anderson, representative of the Red Water Community, also serving as Secretary and Treasurer for the tribal council, Mr. Kevin "Jody" Edwards, who also serves as our chairperson for judicial affairs and representative of the Standing Pine Community; and last but not least, Representative Troy Chickaway of the Conehatta Community. Could we give them a round of applause? They have been quite supportive of the Choctaw Tribal Court System. At this time Chief Lyons it's my honor and privilege to present to you the Choctaw Tribal Court system."

[Video: "...Band of Choctaw Indians is purposefully weaving innovation with the traditions, customs and values that are Choctaw. In this significant way they are 'Keeping it Choctaw'. The Choctaw Tribal Court is a court of general jurisdiction that handles cases involving crime, delinquency and child welfare including violence and victimization issues. The court also handles civil matters involving personal and commercial conflicts or disputes. Some of the contributing factors that exacerbate the above case types include substance abuse, poor economic conditions, social justice problems and stressful family and parent/child relations. To address the above cases and contributing factors the Tribal Court established a Teen Court and a Peacemaking Court. Through these specialized efforts the court has unique opportunities to apply culturally relevant and appropriate philosophy, methods and approaches drawn from the Choctaw culture to more effectively handle the needs of children, youth and families affected by crime and delinquency or involved in civil conflict or disputes. Additionally, the court employs two strategies to further support and culturally enhance the day-to-day operations, the internship program and an Indigenous law library. Let's take a quick look at these four outstanding efforts from the Tribal Court of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians that not only helped us sustain it but by focusing on the guiding principles that are Choctaw ways are truly, 'Keeping it Choctaw'." / Hilda Faye Nickey: "Several years ago we decided it was time to not only preserve the wisdom of our elders but to better educate our younger generations of our tribal and founding values by the use of technology available today. We are more than we had anticipated. Probate law is just one important example of our traditional ways of caring for one another in the time of a relative passing have a powerful impact on Choctaw families. We are excited about the potential influence this Indigenous law library project will have on the Choctaw Tribal Court System and our people." / "The Choctaw Indigenous law library perpetuates the foundational Choctaw principles of tribal life by compiling and archiving videotaped interviews with the elders of the tribal community. The elders are speaking in the Choctaw language and there is translation in English for the non-speaker's benefit. Present day situations are the topics for discussion such as the disciplining of children, the qualities that establish a good home within the community, how family and community disputes should be resolved and even how the planting and harvesting of crops are closely linked to times of forgiveness, reparation, restoration and renewal. This oral survey method of validation and discovery is renewing and further establishing tribal ways that are critical to the tribal court for ensuring cultural relevance, appropriateness and competence in judicial practice. It has the potential to reimage the entire tribal court to be more reflective of the Choctaw as Indian people when referenced by the legal community and the public. Every case type, criminal, juvenile, civil and especially peacemaker is benefiting from the outcomes of this project. The practice can be readily duplicated by other tribes for the development of further oral surveys, compiling databases and even developing guidebooks for other cultural documentation. This invaluable resource demonstrates how advanced technology can be effectively used to preserve elder wisdom while promoting Choctaw culture on all paths of life 'Keeping it Choctaw'." / Rae Nell Vaughn: "We know that the children and youth of the tribe are our future. We know that we must provide opportunities for them to obtain skills and knowledge that will take us to an even better way of life while still preserving our culture, who we are. Mentoring is probably the oldest form of education known and it is still very effective. Our summer internship program is a continuing effort by our Tribal Court System that provides invaluable, hands-on experience for committed youth as they shadow our court staff." / "Designed primarily for Choctaw college and high school students the summer internship with the Choctaw Tribal Court System is assisting in the advancement of a qualified tribal workforce. With exposure to historical and significant court and government proceedings at all levels, these young people have a unique opportunity to see government in action. The ultimate goal is to hire these students in any tribal government position guaranteeing true Choctaw self-determination and ensuring the use of traditional and customary law to be the guiding tenets of how tribal government operates. The interns shadow staff in all offices and positions of the court, appreciating that the traditional roles for staff of being a family and community member do not end because one wears a tie or a robe. Submitting a research paper with an oral presentation encourages necessary communication skills for later employment. Visits to other courts and governments also provide a cross-cultural exchange with interns witnessing for themselves how the other systems interact and interface with the Tribal Court System. These meetings in turn demonstrate to government agencies the importance of practicing good intergovernmental relations as we all influence one another and should hold community as a value of highest esteem. Interns understand that the interweaving of tribal knowledge with academically acquired knowledge strengthens Choctaw law systems and advances good government practice while 'Keeping it Choctaw'." / Henderson Williams: "Peacemaker court is based on Choctaw ways we have researched through historical accounts of tribal life, learning the way things were done in Choctaw villages. Cases are sent to Peacemaking from child courts when opposing parties agree to discuss the conflict between them. They arrive at their own common agreement to permanently solve it. This is truly win-win situation. All can be resolved without the lengthy trial court process through Peacemaking." / "Ittikana Ikbi, Peacemaker Court, is an alternative venue within the Tribal Court System to the common adversarial court setting. Confidentially conducted by one of the two Peacemaker judges, each proceeding zeroes in on applying foundational Choctaw values with uncommon methods for application. In fact, the room being built in the new justice center designated for Peacemaking sessions will have no corners. Circular in design it supports and promotes holistic and collective Indigenous approaches to problem solving. Conflicts usually affect more lives than just the obvious ones so Peacemaking is a comprehensive method of dealing efficiently with even the contributing factors that aggravate these surface concerns. Once exposed, the remedies can be found and plans made for healing, damages repaired, relationships restored and all parties possessing a better understanding of the part of the solution that they own. Besides reducing costs by eliminating attorney fees and all the paper involved in the adversarial system, peacemaking methods have been effectively applied in human resource matters and in political settings where disagreements can divide a community. The wise use of customary laws and traditions are being applied to current realities. The legal professionals, including law enforcement, rely on Ittikana Ikbi with frequent referral restoring it as the primary source for solving conflicts occurring in the tribal community. The senior Peacemaker Henderson Williams points out, 'This becomes a major accomplishment when the end result sustains families, brings relief to stressful situations and preserves friendships. This is 'Keeping it Choctaw.'" / Choctaw teenager: "I have been working with Teen Court for two years now. I was scared at first not knowing what to expect but I knew some of the others that were participating so I joined. It has been a challenge so far but I really enjoy it. We learn about how real court works by doing the jobs ourselves and we know that it is a real case so we know it is very important to do the jobs well." / "Choctaw Tribal Teen Court is designed as a diversion for juvenile offenders that would otherwise enter the formal youth court and be placed on probation. A juvenile offender stands before his peers for an age appropriate disposition that many times includes an immediate verbal apology to the parents. Often a lengthy embrace comes next with tears. This kind of restorative justice just doesn't happen in the adversarial setting and is a clear application of the foundational Choctaw principles of tribal life. Though this jury and all other positions except for the judge is made up of young but well trained Choctaw teens, their demonstrated wisdom is proven well beyond their apparent youth and supposed innocence. One of the unique aspects of the structure of Teen Court is that an offender is required to serve on a jury at least twice. When they listen to others with the same problems, compose age-appropriate dispositions side-by-side with other teen volunteers that are already living responsibly, as well as perform community service work and attend additional training on social problems together, they become a valued part of a worthwhile endeavor making significant changes in their own way of life, an outcome of Choctaw teens mentoring Choctaw teens. Several programs are involved with the training and several of our participants are entering the Tribal Court Summer Internship Program. Finally, recognition for service performed is a critical part of the positive environment established through Teen Court as recognition banquets are held twice a year. Teen Court provides juvenile offenders the safe pathways needed to achieve restoration through Choctaw methods of apology and forgiveness and familiarity with other Choctaw principles. That's 'Keeping it Choctaw'. Through these four works the determined weaving of innovation with the traditions, customs and values that are Choctaw is resulting in a path to Indigenous justice that secures the peace and dignity of all within the tribal community. The Tribal Court System of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is unwavering in its commitment to serve the Choctaw people yesterday, today and in the future. [Cherokee language]. Thank you.]

Heather Kendall-Miller:

"I'll begin with the questions. I can tell you we were all very, very impressed with your program and especially the Teen Court Program. It's marvelous that not only have you brought that level down to children to get them to take responsibility for their lives but you've given them the tools to be able to do so. And I, as I was watching this I was wondering in my head whether or not the program actually included a way for children who were defendants to be integrated into the judging process and your video explained that nicely. So thank you for that. I do have a question and that is related to the support that the court gets form the tribe in general, obviously you've got quite a turnout from your tribal council and that speaks volumes and that's really wonderful but you've been struggling to get into your building for a number of years. What's up with that?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Who should I defer that question to? It has been one that has been a challenge for us and that's more of an issue for the executive and legislative branches to answer. I don't know how else we can define that, but we have been progressing as well as we can with the tools that we have and it's quite evident with the work that we're doing and yes they are very supportive. I think like any other tribe we have pressing priorities. Everyone is a priority. The court is not any higher than our health needs, our education needs, we're all a priority to the council, and I have great confidence and faith that we will get that building completed and we will be in there and we will be able to provide more services and forums for our membership and for the members of our communities."

Heather Kendall-Miller:

"If I may just ask a quick...another question. One of the things that I was intrigued about as well in the success of your court system is the relationship that your tribal court has with the state court system. I assume it's one of mutual respect. Has there been a rocky road in the past in that regard or is there a relationship now in which both courts give full faith and credit to each others' decrees?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Well, I think that there has been somewhat of a challenge with our relationship with the state. However, we were able to have a very historical meeting this past summer at our Justice Symposium, the first opportunity for the Supreme Court of the State of Mississippi and for the tribal Choctaw Court System to meet, which again speaks volumes of this relationship, knowing of the history of the State of Mississippi, knowing the history of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, to have had this opportunity and to have that mutual respect for one another I think speaks volumes. We've had other occasions and opportunities however for this formal opportunity was one that we...I would never have expected to see it and it has happened. I'd also like to have Henderson Williams, our Peacemaker, who would like to also join in and answer."

Henderson Williams:

"In response to that question, it brings to mind just recently the very first time this has ever happened, county court referred a case to Ittikana Ikbi, the Peacemaker Court. There was a case where part is involved in the county court, the state court, had conflicts and the judge referred that case to our peacemaking court. This is something that has never taken place and I believe we have started a good association with the county and the state in that we are working on this case. If we can resolve it and maybe other cases will come along and I'm looking forward to a continued relationship with the county, with the state, particularly in my field that is in peacemaking. Thank you for that question."

JoAnn Chase:

"I join Heather in congratulating you on an outstanding court system. I was particularly struck also by the teen court and the innovative nature of the teen court, and was wondering if maybe you might expand a little bit on some of the information that was provided in your video. I'm particularly curious about the opt-in process and thought that that was quite unique and innovative and would like to hear just a little bit more about that. And then, and similarly perhaps some of the impacts, if you might expand a little bit if you have any kind of...the impacts of the teen court, for example lower recidivism rates, any possible statistics you might be able to share with us as well regarding that impact in the youth community."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Okay. What I'd like to do at this time is defer that question to Andrew Jones, who is our diversion coordinator and who runs our teen court."

Andrew Jones:

"As for the recidivism rate, I can honestly say that with the teen program we've only had one child to actually come back to be sent back to the former youth court. And as for the expanding it, just recently we started, we actually placed teen court in the schools because the schools [were] having, they're having problems with their own issues and instead of bogging the former youth court down we decided to use teen court with it instead of just actually using the former youth court."

Dan Mittan:

"If I could...I'm not sure that we understood the first part of your question. Was it about the opting in? What was that?"

JoAnn Chase:

"Yes, it was. It was about the opt-in process. I was referring to some notes and I just was wondering if you might expand a little bit on that process and if it was exercised regularly and so on, and if you wouldn't mind doing that that would be really helpful. Thank you."

Dan Mittan:

"I'm still not sure I understand but...except that the juvenile offenders, this is a diversion, so instead of going into the formal youth court program they're diverted out into this and then as a part of that they have to serve at least two times on the jury. Well, in the middle of all this training just to partake in the process of being...serving on the jury the training sessions are so interactive so that they find themselves in a different peer group and we think that because of that relationship building within that peer setting they find new friends, things maybe that they thought they were like before and then they realized when they actually rub shoulders with them and work on projects together they're not like that and so we're seeing bridges crossed even between the little groups amongst the teens. And I would just further add that we end up then, those kids, once their time with teen court is over with, they actually come back to say, 'Hey, I want to be a prosecutor this time or I want to be the defense attorney.' So it really is a perpetuating thing."

From the Rebuilding Native Nations Course Series: "Giving the Justice System the Support It Needs"

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Native leaders and scholars share some critical ways that Native nations can support their justice systems to ensure their effectiveness.

Native Nations
Citation

Hershey, Robert. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. October 6, 2010. Interview.

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

Pommersheim, Frank. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. August 11, 2010. Interview.

Pouley, Theresa M. "Reclaiming and Reforming Justice at Tulalip." Emerging Leaders Seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 26, 2008. Presentation.

Vaughn, Rae Nell. "Tribal Justice Systems in the 21st Century." Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 16, 2009. Presentation.

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

Rae Nell Vaughn:

A lot of courts in Indian Country are set up the way we are. They’re statutory courts, and sometimes aren’t given the respect that they should be given. Let me assure you, tribal court is not a program. It is not a social program. It is a forum that is established to protect the people and enforce the law. But for whatever reason, and there are many I’m sure, there continues to be this tendency of a perception that these are just programs. Tribal court is nothing more than a program like social services, like legal aid -- it’s just a program.

Theresa M. Pouley:

Your law and justice system must be part of the whole tribal system. You have to be prepared as tribal council people, and tribal judges have to be prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with their elected officials to say enough is enough, to say that it’s time to help our relatives heal.

Frank Pommersheim:

You’re involved with human beings, and I think from most tribal points of view is that they don’t want to cast those individuals out, but they want to try to hold on to them and work with them and try to reintegrate them into the community. And to do that, you need resources and capacity. And in the real world, that means having adequate law enforcement, having a fully-scaled tribal court system, having institutions that can help offenders who have been convicted or pled guilty. I think that those things are really, really important.

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

I think, at least, our tribal officials need to recognize our court system as a stand-alone entity that has a specific function, a very important function. What the courts do is so vital to tribal sovereignty. It is so vital to self-determination. It is so vital to us. You know, if we want to engage in any type of regulatory authority on the reservation, our courts have got to be equipped to be able to carry out adjudicating any matter.

Robert A. Hershey:

First and foremost, freedom from political interference. I think that’s pretty well-recognized, right? Qualified judges who receive the adequate training to deal with all manner of cases, because there’s an escalation of the number of cases coming in front of tribal courts with an escalation of the population on the reservations. And then there is escalation in the complexity of cases that come before it. So, independence, adequate training, adequate funding for programs, adequate court staff, technology that supports this.

Rae Nell Vaughn:

If you don’t feel that support from your government, then obviously the community’s not going to support you as well; and those are some key things that have to happen is to have that support. Now you and I may argue here, but when we step out as a judiciary and as a government, we need to be unified, because each of us as a legislative body and as an executive body -- whether we’re a judicial branch or a statutory court -- we still have to work and maintain as a stable government, because if your leadership is bad-mouthing you, judicial system, what does that say of the leadership?

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

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

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

Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

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.