Advocacy Journalism - justice for Jawnie Hough

A terrible saga for Jawnie Hough
October 4, 2002



from the

     Native American Press/Ojibwe News

State court judge’s orders to return child ignored by Donald Brun, Jr.

By Clara Niiska

On September 23, 2002, Jawnie Hough went to before Judge Terrance Holter at the Beltrami County Courthouse in Bemidji yet again, seeking the return of her five-year old daughter Meghan. She and her Leech Lake attorney, Frank Bibeau, faced Jawnie’s ex-husband Donald James Brun, Jr. and his Twin Cities attorney Lawrence Nichols.

Six months earlier, on March 4, 2002, Judge Holter ordered Donald Brun, Jr. to return Meghan to Jawnie. Brun ignored the state court order, and when faced with criminal contempt charges for his failure to return the child, his attorney filed papers urging that the state court invalidate all of its proceedings back to and including Jawnie’s June 1999 divorce from Donald Jr., on the grounds that the state courts did not have jurisdiction over Donald Brun, Jr., a Red Lake enrollee.

In a court order issued the day after the September 23rd hearing, Minnesota court Judge Terrance Holter rejected Brun’s arguments, and ordered that Meghan be returned to her mother by 5:00 p.m. on October 1, 2002.

The memorandum of law accompanying Holter’s order is a forceful analysis of the jurisdictional issues involved in the case, as well as of the “fundamental rights” of all citizens. Holter writes that, “these fundamental rights require reliable due process prior to depriving a citizen of those rights.”

Holter sharply points out that Jawnie Hough, a Leech Lake enrollee residing under Minnesota jurisdiction, is, even under the Red Lake tribal code, clearly not subject to Red Lake jurisdiction. He also notes that prior to the child’s being sent to Red Lake pursuant to the Red Lake tribal court’s ex parte custody order, Meghan had “more substantial contacts with Minnesota than [she] did with the Red Lake reservation.”

Holter firmly rejected Brun’s arguments that he is beyond state jurisdiction, pointing out that “respondent has … availed himself to this Court on numerous occasions.” He points out that Brun’s motion to invalidate the divorce three years after it became final is too late, “far beyond the time for appeal.”

On September 24th, Holter ordered that Brun’s “motion to Vacate prior judgments and orders of this Court is DENIED.”

As this issue of Press/ON went to press on October 3rd, the Bruns have apparently made no effort to comply with the Minnesota court’s order to return Meghan to her mother. There are rumors, which Press/ON was unable to verify by press time, that Meghan’s paternal grandparents Donald “Dutch” and Geraldine “Joy” Brun have obtained an ‘order for protection’ from the Red Lake tribal court barring the return of Meghan to her mother.

It is also rumored that Brun intends to appeal the Beltrami County court order. Press/ON made several attempts to contact the Bruns and their attorney, but calls had not been returned by press time.

Both newly-elected tribal chairman Gerald “Butch” Brun, who is Donald “Dutch” Brun’s brother, and longtime tribal administrator Francis “Chunky” Brun, who is Dutch’s first cousin, have previously denied influencing the tribal court’s actions in the series of tribal court cases involving Meghan Brun. It remains to be seen whether or not those family ties – or the broader ‘reservation elite’ networks which encompass the Bruns – will play a role in any decision to appeal, and whether or not Red Lake tribal attorneys would be involved in an appeal.

The nightmare continues

Despite two court orders mandating that Meghan be returned to her mother at Leech Lake, one last March and the second last week, Meghan remains with her paternal grandparents at Red Lake. According to Leech Lake attorney Frank Bibeau, who represented Jawnie Hough at the most recent hearing, Brun’s attorney is not even returning his phone calls.

Young Meghan’s life has been wrenched by the Red Lake tribal court for more than two years now. Confined within the boundaries of Red Lake reservation to avoid exposing her to State jurisdiction, Meghan has matured from the toddler wrested from her mother’s arms by police at the University of Minnesota hospitals and removed to Red Lake reservation, to a five-year-old girl starting school in the worst-ranked school district in Minnesota.

For the past two years Meghan’s mother, Leech Laker Jawnie Hough, has endured a legal nightmare launched by Meghan’s paternal grandparents taking the child for a “visit” to Red Lake in April 2000. Instead of returning the child to her mother as they had promised, the Bruns sought the jurisdiction of the Red Lake tribal court. On May 9, 2000, the tribal court issued an ex parte reversal of custody granted to Jawnie by the Beltrami County court as a part of her divorce from Donald Brun, Jr. eleven months previously.

Jawnie retrieved her daughter during the child’s visit to the off-reservation town of Bemidji a few weeks later. The Bruns responded by taking the Red Lake court order to Beltrami County. Without notifying Jawnie, on June 19, 2000 the Beltrami County court ex parte entered the Red Lake court order into Minnesota state law on the grounds of “comity” and ordered that the tribal court order “shall be enforced by this court.” In his June 19th decision, the state court judge ordered state law enforcement officials to take custody of Meghan and “return the child to the jurisdiction of the Red Lake Indian Nation.” Jawnie, working at the Palace Casino on Leech Lake Reservation and living in Cass Lake, was not informed of the court’s actions.

On January 10, 2001, Beltrami County Attorney Tim Faver signed a criminal complaint against Jawnie – who had still not been notified of the court’s custody reversal. The very next day, she was arrested while with a family member undergoing cancer treatment in Minneapolis. Meghan was sent without any further hearing to Red Lake, and Jawnie faced criminal prosecution for ‘deprivation of parental rights’ based on the Red Lake tribal court’s ex parte custody reversal and the state court’s uncritical ex parte ‘comity’ acceptance of that tribal court order. Jawnie’s public defender, the wife of Red Lake tribal attorney David Harrington, urged Jawnie to plead guilty to the felony charges and seek the jurisdiction of the Red Lake tribal court. At trial, Jawnie pled “not guilty,” the criminal charges were ‘deferred,’ and Jawnie sought to regain custody of her daughter through the state court that had taken the little girl away from her mother.

On March 4, 2002, Beltrami County district court Judge Holter struck down the state court’s judicial order enforcing the Red Lake court judgment. Holter found that Donald Brun, Jr. knowingly violated state court orders by taking Meghan to Red Lake and subjecting her to Red Lake tribal court custody re-determination. Holter also ruled that Donald Jr. “did perpetrate misconduct on this court” in obtaining the ex parte custody determinations, and expressed “serious doubts as to the impartiality and/or due process protection afforded [Jawnie Hough] in Red Lake Tribal Court.”

In his March 4th decision, Judge Holter also issued the unusual directive that the Bruns not use the Red Lake tribal court for any future actions affecting the custody of Meghan. “While the practices of the Red Lake Tribal Court may be indicative of tribal notions of self-government and sovereignty, these procedures are seriously defective if the Tribal Court seeks to have its judgments enforced and recognized by other tribal courts, other state courts, or federal courts. The circumstances as they have developed mandate that subsequent proceedings take place in a neutral forum providing appropriate due process protections for all contestants,” Holter wrote.

The Bruns ignored the March 4 state court order that Meghan be returned to her mother, Jawnie Hough, before 5:00 p.m. on March 10. “I figured they wouldn’t show up,” Jawnie told Press/ON reporter Jeff Armstrong. “They still think they can run and hide behind reservation lines.”

After the state court denied his requested stay of the custody order, Bemidji attorney Michael Ruffenach, who was Brun’s attorney at the time, wrote to Jawnie’s attorney, Frank Bibeau, stating that “my client is not going to return the child,” and asserting that Meghan was under the jurisdiction of the Red Lake tribal court system. When Bibeau responded with a letter urging the state court “please encourage counsel to assist with the enforcement of the March 4, 2002 Order,” Ruffenach resigned as Brun’s attorney.

On May 20, 2002, the state court heard an “Order to Show Cause” mandating that Brun either return Meghan to the rightful custody of her mother, or provide legally valid reasons why he had not done so.

Through attorney Lawrence Nichols, who was apparently advised by Red Lake tribal attorneys, Brun responded by filing a motion to vacate all of the prior judgments and orders of the state court – including the 1999 divorce and original custody determination – based on arguments that Donald Brun, Jr. was not subject to state jurisdiction, and could not even be legally served with the papers necessary to initiate state divorce proceedings while on the reservation.

Brun’s “Motion to Vacate” was vigorously rejected by Judge Holter in his September 24th Order.

But, Jawnie Hough’s attempts to “coordinate the return of [Meghan] … have been resisted by the Bruns.” Despite the state court orders, the little girl remains at Red Lake in the custody of Donald Jr.’s parents.

My little girl “is getting her heart broken,” Jawnie Hough told Press/ON. The Bruns “are not complying with the court order … they’re going to try everything for their own selfish reasons.”

“It’s sad,” added the mother whose child was ripped from her arms by an ex parte tribal court order enforced by the state. “They are running back to tribal court – it’s not fair up there, it will never be fair for anyone that’s not from there.” When Jawnie called the Bruns in an effort to get Meghan back, they reportedly told her that they had gone to tribal court and “gotten a restraining order, ‘we’re a sovereign nation’.”

Beltrami County Judge Holter, in his September 24th decision, stresses “fundamental rights,” as well as the state’s “compelling interest and … duty” to provide all of its citizens access to “reliable due process.”

Judge Holter also carefully distinguishes those actions between Red Lake enrollees which have no effects beyond the reservation boundaries, and those which ‘cross the line’ into Minnesota. He cites Minnesota State Ethical Practices Board v Red Lake DFL Committee, 303 N.W.2d 54 (1981), in which the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that, “it is also clear that activities, even though originating on the reservation, which cause something to occur beyond the reservation boundaries fall under the jurisdiction of the State courts.”

In its 1981 ruling finding then-chairman Roger Jourdain in contempt of court for failing to comply with state campaign finance laws when buying off-reservation advertising intended to influence voters in Minnesota elections, the Minnesota Supreme Court pointed out, “that while the activities of the Red Lake DFL Committee may have originated … within the reservation boundaries, those activities also extended beyond, affecting persons outside the reservation and, indeed, were intended to do so.”

Similarly, Judge Holter ruled, tribal court decisions affecting Minnesota citizens and their rights off-reservation cannot reasonably be exempt from the “fundamental rights” protected by both the U.S. and Minnesota constitutions.

How much longer until Jawnie Hough and her daughter Meghan are finally beyond the legal nightmare engendered by the Red Lake tribal court? The deadline for appeal of the Beltrami County court’s order expires in late November, nearly three years after the little girl was torn from her mother’s arms as she cried, “How come I have to go with the cops? What did I do wrong?”






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