By JONAH LOSSIAH
One Feather Staff
Thursday morning (March 3) EBCI Tribal Council passed Ordinances 139 and 143, two items that look to reshape the experience in the tribal justice system.
Ord. No. 143 adds criminal defense to the duties of the Legal Assistance Office (LAO) and is the first step towards integrating a public defender to the operations at Tribal Court. Bonnie Claxton, managing attorney of LAO, was there to speak on the ordinance.
“The hope is to continue to provide high-quality legal representation. Have defense attorneys that are dedicated to practicing in Cherokee Court so that we’re not delaying just because attorneys are caught up in other courts. We’ve been working with the Court to see exactly how that transition would happen,” said Claxton.
Tribal Council immediately moved to pass, and it did so unanimously.
“I want to say thank you. If this Tribe’s going to prosecute its members it needs to defend them too. Especially when it comes to children and women and men that need that service. I appreciate this very, very much. It’s been a long time coming,” said Big Cove Rep. Teresa McCoy.
Painttown Rep. Dike Sneed also applauded the move but wanted to ensure that progress continued.
“When I was in law enforcement, I had cases go over a year waiting to get them before a judge. With all that being said, I want to make sure you get a victim’s advocate. Make sure. That’s what’s needed,” said Rep. Sneed.
Ten minutes later, Council heard Ord. No. 143, ‘to establish rights of victims of crime in a new Chapter 15C of the Cherokee Code.’ Hannah Smith from the EBCI Office of the Attorney General presented this item.
“What this does is it gives victims a place to go in the Tribal law and understand very specifically what they’re entitled to in terms of their relationship with the prosecutor’s office and the court system whenever they’re a victim of a crime and they want to stay plugged in and be notified when things happen in that case. Like plea offers or sentencing and things like that. They have a voice and it’s defined in the law. They’ll know how to reach out,” said Smith.
“It also puts the burden on our law enforcement officers to simply make victims of crimes aware. As they’re really the first responders or first window of opportunity to make victims aware that we need their contact information and that they have rights to stay informed about their case and have a voice.”
This ordinance was also passed unanimously by Tribal Council.
Associate Judge Barbara Parker was in the chambers to provide updates to Council. She thanked them for their support and offered insight on some of the upcoming changes to the justice system.
“We beg your patience. It is a knot we are untangling. It is a mess, and it is the first time, I think, in 20 years that all of these entities of the justice system have all come together and are sitting down at the table and making these decisions. So, we’re working hard on this,” said Parker.
Leading up to Thursday, this is something that Claxton detailed as well.
“What is great about the timing right now is that there are so many pieces of the justice system that are falling into place. The court is really engaged and interested in seeing this happen. The prosecutor’s office as well. The police department has been supportive of some of the changes we’re trying to make in order to make this whole system trauma-informed.”
Claxton said that one of the needs of public defense is to simply have consistent representation in the courtroom. Tribal Court, and many other courts in the region, use a cycling list of attorneys for defendants in need of representation.
“They’re not always able to be here when these cases are being handled. It’s not uncommon for one of the criminal court-appointed attorneys to have three or four courthouses they’re supposed to be in in a single day. So, that really slows down the resolution of these cases,” said Claxton.
Shelli Buckner, of the Tribal Prosecutors Office, has been advocating for this move as well.
“I think it’s going to be huge for the administration and efficiency of justice. We have some really big dockets these days … the lawyers that practice are pulled in a lot of different directions. They’re all very confident and capable, but it’s about having enough bandwidth and time to devote to individuals here. I think having a public defender office is going to help those employed in that office focus their attention to our jurisdiction specifically. That’s going to help everyone engage in the justice system,” said Buckner.
While it assists defendants and the system as a whole, Buckner said that it will also help the prosecutor’s office directly.
“We spend a lot of time in the coordinating and scheduling aspects of the job. I think that having a public defender’s office as a point of contact will help us minimize the amount of time that we spend on those more administrative functions of the job and allow us to spend more time on the substantive aspects of the job. Which I think is really critical to getting things done and getting cases moved along.”
Claxton said another major benefit of a public defender is the ability to ensure the defense attorney is well-versed in Cherokee and its people.
“We don’t have as much control over the type of representation, how much education they have in Cherokee culture, and that kind of thing. If we do have folks in-house, and even if we have them on a contract, we can say ‘this is what the expectations are.’ Not only that you show up to court, but also that you spend time trying to understand this culture and trying to understand where your clients are coming from.”
She said this is just the start, and that she is very much looking forward to how this momentum can carry the LAO office forward. She said that they want to take it a step further and create a space for holistic public defense.
“What we hope to do with the holistic defense is to say we have one attorney who is very familiar with all the different types of legal processes that you’re dealing with right now. And can actually represent you not only in your criminal matter but also in your family safety matter and can speak authoritatively about what’s happening in family safety court and what needs to happen for your criminal matter as well.”
The LAO is looking to contract an attorney to get the ball rolling on this program. That is already in the works, and discussions are ongoing on if and how to implement a fulltime position moving forward.