Advocacy Journalism - justice for Jawnie Hough

A terrible saga for Jawnie Hough
June 1, 2001

Jawnie Hough update
Injustice: the Red Lake tribal court and the Beltrami County legal system

by Clara NiiSka

On Monday, May 23, Jawnie Hough appeared before Judge Terrance Holter at the Ninth District Court in Beltrami County.  She faced felony charges deriving from the Minnesota court’s ex parte acceptance of an April 2000 Red Lake tribal court order.  The tribal court order, also made ex parte, reversed a child custody determination which was made by the state court in June 1999.

Jawnie, a Leech Lake enrollee, was formally informed of the State’s custody reversal on January 10, 2001, when she and her four year old daughter Meghan Brun were apprehended while with a family member undergoing cancer treatment at the Fairview University Medical Center in Minneapolis.  Meghan was taken from her mother by police, and released to the custody of Jawnie’s ex-husband, Donald Brun, Jr., and his parents, Donald “Dutch” and Geraldine Brun.

The last time Jawnie saw her daughter was as the little girl was being taken away by police on January 10.  The Red Lake court order—made pursuant to a hearing at which Jawnie was not allowed to be present—directs that “any visitation can only be through petition and order of the court or by direct consent of the legal custodial parent, Donald Brun, Jr.”  Jawnie requested visitation; her ex-husband reportedly responded, “get on with your life, because you will never see your child again.”

An attorney who asked not to be identified, who spent years prosecuting domestic abuse cases on another reservation, commented to Press/ON that abusers’ continuing to batter by manipulating the legal system is a tragically common pattern.  Unfortunately for Jawnie, the Beltrami County legal system fell prey to such abusive exploitation.

The May 21 hearing

Jawnie Hough went to court in Beltrami County on May 21, accompanied by public defender Kristine Kolar, and by Sonny Johnson, a lay advocate at the Red Lake tribal court who was recommended by Ms. Kolar.

The public defender reportedly had arranged a plea bargain for Jawnie, and directed her to plead guilty.  Jawnie refused to do it.  When Press/ON contacted her, Jawnie explained, “I’m not going to plead guilty to a felony, especially when I’m not in the wrong … I am not guilty.”

After further consultation—Ms. Kolar left the courtroom for fifteen or twenty minutes—Jawnie pled “not guilty” in exchange for a deferred sentence.  If she does not physically remove her daughter from Red Lake reservation and the Bruns’ custody, in six months the criminal charges against Jawnie will be dismissed and expunged from her record.  Press/ON contacted both Ms. Kolar and Beltrami County Attorney Tim Faver for comment; at press time neither had responded.

The court file “for May 21, 2001” reads simply, “TF 6 mo deferred no s/s.  KK-agree.  Ct. 6 mo. Defer no s/s.”  Translated from court reporter Kathleen Cundy’s abbreviations, prosecuting attorney Tim Faver proposed that the felony charges be deferred for six months, contingent on no ‘same or similar’ offenses.  Defense attorney Kristine Kolar agreeded.  The court thereupon resolved the case as agreed upon by the attorneys.  Transcripts were not yet available at press time.

Custody of Meghan: whose jurisdiction?

With state criminal charges—depriving another of parental or custodial rights—more-or-less resolved, Jawnie Hough still faces painful legal dilemmas involving custody of her daughter.  Jawnie is presently barred from visiting her daughter at Red Lake; Press/ON has learned from sources who asked to remain anonymous that Jawnie is barred from Red Lake by an alleged “order for protection” obtained by her ex-husband.

Jawnie was initially awarded primary physical custody of Meghan, subject to liberal paternal visitation, as a part of the divorce proceedings in Beltrami County.  In the June 19, 1999 divorce decree, the Minnesota court asserted “continuing, exclusive jurisdiction.”

Her ex-husband, Donald Brun, Jr. responded with a June 25, 1999 Order for Protection from the Red Lake tribal court, in which the Red Lake court asserted both subject matter and personal jurisdiction.  Nearly a year later, in May 2000, the Red Lake tribal court exercised its assertion of jurisdiction with an Order of Custody, heard with only Donald Brun, Jr. and his parents present.  The Red Lake tribal court order was then entered into the state of Minnesota legal system through ex parte legal action initiated by Donald Jr. in June 2000.

The four year old Meghan Brun, enrolled at Red Lake but enrollable at Leech Lake, is currently in the physical custody of her paternal grandparents, Dutch and Geraldine Brun—at Red Lake.

Both Red Lake lay advocate Sonny Johnson and state public defender Kristine Kolar, whose husband is Red Lake attorney David Harrington, urged Jawnie Hough to go to the Red Lake tribal courts and seek custody, or at least visitation, of her daughter, rather than filing in the Minnesota courts to reverse the Ninth District Court’s ex parte rubber-stamp of the Red Lake tribal court order.

Jawnie Hough is a Leech Lake enrollee residing on Leech Lake reservation, and pursuant to federal Public Law 280 is subject to state of Minnesota jurisdiction.

Jawnie’s experiences with the Red Lake tribal courts to date are a chronicle of injustice: in-court threats to jail her legal services attorney Amber Ahola in June 1999, and since then, one-sided hearings and ex parte determinations made in Jawnie’s absence.  Paternal grandfather Dutch Brun’s first cousin, Francis “Chunky” Brun, is tribal administrator and has undue influence over the Red Lake tribal court system.  As Press/ON reported on December 17, 1999 and February 9, 2000, Chunky Brun has previously been involved abusive child custody determinations by the Red Lake tribal court.

After the hearing in Beltrami County on Monday, May 21, Press/ON contacted Jawnie Hough.  She was obviously deeply concerned about her daughter Meghan, but said that she saw “no point” in going to the Red Lake tribal court, that she “knew what would happen,” and that her main concern was to find an attorney to help her with civil litigation to regain custody of her daughter through the state of Minnesota courts.

Press/ON  telephoned Sonny Johnson on Wednesday.  He said that he had filed a petition in the Red Lake tribal courts on May 22, seeking “visitation … then we work toward custody.”  He also said that he would receive service of legal process at Red Lake on Jawnie Hough’s behalf.  When Press/ON asked Johnson about the Red Lake tribal court’s previous abuses of Jawnie Hough, Johnson said that he “knows how to handle” the Red Lake tribal courts.

Press/ON contacted Jawnie Hough again on Wednesday, May 23.  She said that although she very much wanted to get her daughter back, she was quite skeptical about getting a fair and impartial hearing at the Red Lake tribal courts.  “I just don’t trust that court system at all,” she said.

When asked about lay advocate Sonny Johnson’s having submitted her into the jurisdiction of the Red Lake tribal courts, Jawnie explained that she signed “papers to get supervised visitation” with her daughter.  Press/ON was the first to inform her that Johnson had filed for legal action in the Red Lake tribal courts.

Jawnie Hough is a young mother who has been barred from seeing—or even speaking to—her four-year-old daughter for the past six months.  “The way it looks now,” Jawnie said on May 23, “I may not see my daughter until she turns 18 … until she’s old enough to say, ‘I need to go look for my mom and see exactly what happened.’  She’s four now. …”

Early during the week of May 29, Jawnie Hough reportedly met with another attorney to explore the possibility of addressing the custody of her daughter Meghan as a civil matter in the State courts. 

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