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

Indigenous Peoples' Law and Policy Program

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

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."

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Choctaw Tribal Court System

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