Advocacy Journalism - justice for Jawnie Hough

A terrible saga for Jawnie Hough
April 26, 2002


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     Native American Press/Ojibwe News


We need an independent court at Red Lake

by Bill Lawrence

The foundation of any society is an independent legal system. A fair and honest rule of law is fundamental to civilized society. It builds the trust and unity without which society cannot function. Without an open, honest and competent legal system, society degenerates into chaos. We are left with a mess that feeds on itself, festering violence, poverty, and unnecessary suffering.

A fair and open legal system is also essential for the development and operation of a functioning economy. Economic development at Red Lake will never happen until people can protect their investments. An independent legal system builds respect for individuals, for property rights, and for the viability of the society as a whole. Until we can hold the legal system accountable to the people, how can we expect the people to be accountable to the law?

As Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said recently, "The guiding mechanism of a free market economy ... is a bill of rights, enforced by an impartial judiciary." There can be no denying that the lack of civil rights, the lack of legitimate and impartial courts, and the lack of governmental accountability is the single biggest reason there is so little economic growth on Indian reservations, including Red Lake.

When the legal, system is corrupted, society falls apart. When certain individuals have undue influence over that court system, it loses the respect of the people and people tend to take law into their own hands.

The terrible recurring violence at Red Lake is symptomatic of longstanding problems with the legal system.

There have been serious problems with the legal system at Red Lake for at least two generations. I first exposed the abuses of the Red Lake tribal court in 1972 in a law review article. In November of 1986, three Red Lake Indians sued the Interior Department in an attempt to shut down the Red Lake court because of civil rights abuses. The BIA issued a directive urging that tribal courts resolve the problems, but made no serious attempt to enforce compliance.

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission put the BIA on notice about tribal court abuses in 1988-1989. The BIA's only significant responses were to suppress the most damaging sections of the Civil Rights Commission's report, to increase funding to the tribal courts, and to shift the bureaucratic structure so that more of the responsibility for tribal court abuses fell on the tribal councils.

Over the years, this newspaper has documented egregious abuses of the tribal court system at Red Lake and on other reservations. It is clear that the BIA will not take any initiative in solving the problems that agency has fostered.

We can see the deep deterioration of the Red Lake tribal courts not only with the bizarre legal nightmare confronting Jawnie Hough and her daughter Meghan Brun (and too many other cases), but also with the increasing violence and drug problems at Red Lake. Violent crimes, abuse, and other problems are tearing apart the fabric of society at Red Lake. People are not only afraid, they are frustrated at living in these circumstances. They are at the mercy of violent people, including drug dealers and bootleggers.

Society is disrupted. As Charmaine Lussier-Sayers wrote in her letter to the editor this week, "I've been told several times that one ALWAYS carries a pistol!" Red Lake reservation should not be a "war zone." Our people deserve better than that. Nobody should be faced with the bitter choice of leaving home and community, or trying to raise their children amid chaotic reservation violence where there are regularly pools of blood and the roads are littered with "pieces of bloody [human] tissue." Violent crime is tearing the community apart, and community morale is the lowest it's been for thirty years.

Without an honest, competent, fair and open legal system, people can not address the drugs, violence, and other social problems which permeate the reservation. The pervasive injustice exemplified by the Jawnie Hough situation, and the ability by certain individuals and families to influence and have control of the tribal court, is probably the biggest problem on the reservation. As I see it, it affects everything. It stifles economic development -- people won't invest on the reservation because it is clear that under the present legal system they cannot protect their investments. It affects law enforcement and crime, since certain people are `above the law' and law enforcement officials are afraid to do their duty (for example, serve legal papers) because they could lose their jobs. And, it creates despair for the people who must live with the injustices.

We, the people, should seriously consider changing the tribal constitution so that we elect judges, and at mandating that tribal court records be open and public records.

We have members who are lawyers, who have taken an oath to uphold the law, who have made the considerable effort to become educated in the law, and who are in most ways beyond the influence of tribal politics and are capable of being impartial adjudicators. We should require that tribal court judges have law degrees, that they are subject to the same rigorous standards of professional ethics as state and federal judges, and that they are independently elected by the people.

Red Lake tribal elections will be held May 15th. We have forty-nine people running for nine positions -- all but two of the current tribal council are standing for election in less than a month. It's time that we polled those running for office. We need to demand that our society change, to see it improve, to move beyond the escalating violence and the abuse and the misuse of the courts for personal reasons.

We can spend all kinds of money on pow-wows and other celebrations, but we have not found the will to ensure that all of our tribal members are competently represented in tribal court.

Press/ON has publicly documented egregious example of how tribal courts can be manipulated, controlled, and influenced by certain individuals and families, to the detriment of the whole reservation. This kind of legal abuse breeds lawlessness, it feeds on disrespect for one another and for each others' property. It perpetuates the despair on the reservation. We need to get beyond that, and the first step is the establishment of an independent court.


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