State court/tribal court joint committee predictably divided

by Bill Lawrence

Editor's Note:

Bill Lawrence is the owner and publisher of Native American Press/Ojibwe News (

This commentary was reprinted with his permission and appeared originally in the September 17, 1999 edition of Naive American Press/Ojibwe News.

References to "this paper" and "the editor" pertain to the Native American Press/Ojibwe News.

As I predicted last winter, the State Court/Tribal Court Joint Committee ceased to exist shortly after former Justice Sandra Gardebring left her judgeship to take a job as a vice president of the University of Minnesota.

The Joint Committee, which was created by then-Justice Gardebring, held its first meeting in July 1997. The purpose was to develop a means to make the rulings of state courts and tribal courts binding and enforceable by the other ­ a scary proposition to those of us who are familiar with the operation of tribal courts.

Meetings of the Joint Committee alternated every-other-one between the State Judicial Center and an Indian reservation. Those held on reservations were not open to the public -- something this newspaper took issue with given that the meetings included state officials discussing issues important to state citizens.

In March 1999, the State Court/Tribal Court Joint Committee split into two and each has since met separately. They will meet in a joint forum only "periodically," with the first forum meeting planned for October.

The forum was initially scheduled for October 8, but that date has apparently been changed, and while a state court spokesperson says the joint forum will be held at the state judicial center, unofficial documents not intended for public consumption show an intention to hold the joint forum on a reservation. It's yet to be seen whether the state will go along with tribal "tradition" of barring the public from such meetings.

"There was some concern about whether the state court had the authority to proceed with the committee, or if it should instead be a Legislative effort, and there was concern that the state court may one day hear a case related to the issues the committee was discussing," said a state court spokesperson, when asked by the editor of this newspaper what led to the split. The spokesperson wouldn't elaborate, saying, "I'm not sure how much I can really say on the record."

Many constitutional concerns were apparently acknowledged Foremost should be questioning the legal basis for tribal courts even existing in the first place. Neither U.S., state nor tribal constitutions provide for their existence.

Included in this newspaper are the official agenda for the State Court Committee meeting held Sept. 10, and the unofficial, more detailed agenda, which this newspaper received accidentally. The Sept. 10 meeting was conveniently held in conjunction with a district court judges convention held at Maddens Resort near Brainerd, and thereby was not accessible to the public.

The fact that there is apparently an "official" agenda for public consumption, and an "unofficial" agenda the public isn't supposed to know about, and the fact that the meeting is scheduled at such time and place as to prohibit observation by the public or media, fuels my concern about what the court may be up to.

I can only hope that the more the state learns about tribal courts (i.e. their lack of separation of powers, their lack of due process, their lack of any systems and controls, their abuse of rights, etc.), the more concern the state will have about doing anything jointly, and ever recognizing tribal court rulings.