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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 28, 2001 - Issue 41


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Justices Visit Tribal Court
Where community reigns supreme


 by Jim Camden Spokesman-Review Staff Writer-July 19, 2001

WELLPINIT, Wash. _ Two of the nation's most powerful judges Wednesday stepped out of the world of black robes and formal procedures and into the world of Strong Heart Court, Talking Circles and eagle feathers.

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen Breyer made a historic visit to the Spokane Indian Reservation for a look at innovative tribal courts.

They watched in Strong Heart Court as a team of 10 people decided the best way to help juvenile drug users.

They joined in the applause as teens battling alcohol or drug use were lauded for a week of clean drug tests or faithful attendance at counseling sessions. They heard the debates over whether to send teens with repeated failures or absences to detention or treatment centers.

A prosecutor, a defense attorney, a probation officer, a drug counselor, members of the community and a Spokane tribal elder all had a vote on the teens who were punished. Team members didn't always agree, and Tribal Judge Mary Pearson had to abide by the majority decision.

"It's very intense," O'Connor said later. "But it's a good way to do it if you can."

Spokane tribal leaders hope the visit will highlight their innovative concepts and make the point that tribal courts are separate but equal players in the nation's judicial system, atop which the Supreme Court justices sit.

Strong Heart Court started in March, after the Spokanes received the first payment in a three-year, $500,000 federal grant. It uses a holistic approach that reaches back to the tribe's traditions of involving the entire community to help a member in trouble.

Pearson, a 12-year veteran of tribal courts who has served on the Spokane Reservation for the past four, said it was designed when a more standard system -- detention, probation, treatment -- was failing.

Offenders would be put on probation, but there was no probation officer, she said. They'd be ordered to undergo drug testing, but there was no money for testing.

"Did you modify something?" Breyer asked.

Not really, Pearson said. No other system had the intimacy of the tribal community.

"Everybody knows the details of everybody's lives," she said.

They called it Strong Heart Court because Wellness Court sounded too "New Age" and Drug Court sounded too negative.

Breyer and O'Connor both came away with praise for the system. Communities all over the country are trying some sort of drug court approach, O'Connor said. The Spokanes are lucky to have a large group of people who are engaged and willing to participate as team members.

"There are a significant number of people who are focused on `What do we do with this person,"' Breyer said. "It's the right thing for this community."

Tribal members between 12 and 20 can be referred to the court for alcohol or drug abuse or for minor criminal offenses. During the yearlong program, they must submit to three drug tests, go to two group therapy sessions, one individual session and Talking Circle each week.

Talking Circle is a tribal concept that Conrad Pascal, an associate judge, introduced to the reservation court system years ago when he was "running into a wall" with a particularly tough case.

Pascal told the judges he took off his robe, stepped away from the bench and joined the defendant and her family in the seats as "a friend who wants to help." They sat in a circle, so all their hearts pointed to the center, held hands, said a prayer then passed around an eagle feather to keep the discussion going.

But in the Talking Circle, only the person holding the feather is allowed to talk. Talking as friends trying to help got through when talking as a judge could not, Pascal said.

His courtroom is a far cry from the Supreme Court Temple of Justice in Washington, D.C. Pascal doesn't sit at an elevated bench because he wants to be on the same eye level as the people who come before him. His bench is a desk with a colorful striped blanket laid across the top. On the wall behind him is a cougar skin. In his office is the eagle feather.

He has used the Talking Circle in civil, criminal and family law cases. It doesn't always work.

"Timing is everything," Pascal said. The person has to be ready to listen, but not so far out of control that he or she can't be helped.

O'Connor said the Talking Circle reminded her of things that were tried in some juvenile courts in the 1960s, and was impressed with the concept of the feather, which Pascal explained holds the thoughts and prayers of the group and is sometimes given to defendants to help them through tough times.

Breyer called it an interesting concept for family courts, which he called "the hardest jobs in the world."

O'Connor and Breyer are on a tour sponsored by the National Association of Tribal Courts, and are stopping at only two reservations. They'll go from Spokane to Arizona today, to visit the much larger Navajo Reservation and tribal court system.

Spokane tribal members said they were honored to be one of the two tribes chosen and anxious to make the case that their courts are fair and capable.

"We've been fighting to bring justice to our people for 150 years," said Margo Hill, tribal attorney and first member of the Spokane Tribe to graduate from law school.

"The decisions they make affect everything we do," Tribal Business Chairman Alfred Peone said of the Supreme Court justices.

Last month, O'Connor cast the deciding vote that awarded the lower third of Lake Coeur d'Alene to the Coeur d'Alene Tribe. "We want to open their eyes. The more things they see, the better they understand," Peone said.

 Maps by Travel

Supreme Court of the United States

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