2020 State of the Judical Branch


Boozhoo, Aaniin, good morning, Chief Executive Benjamin, Speaker Boyd, District Representatives of the Band Assembly, Mille Lacs Band members, employees, and guests. It is a good day for all of us to come together for this occasion.

My name is David Christensen. I serve as the District Court Judge for the Band’s Court of Central Jurisdiction. I see many familiar faces today, but not all of you have found your way into the Tribal Court courtroom, which may be a good thing for you. I am an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. It has been very exciting to see the growth and devel- opment of the Court since I first came to work for the Mille Lacs Band 27 years ago in the Office of the Solicitor General. I also served as the first legislative counsel for Band Assembly. During that time, I helped draft the revisions to the judicial code and saw the transition to the current Tribal Court system. It has been my honor and privilege since 2015 to serve as the District Court Judge and see on a daily basis the positive effect the Court can have on the lives of individual Band members and their families.

Tribute to justices

As many of you are aware, it is the responsibility of the Chief Justice of the Band’s Court of Appeals to give this address. Unfortunately, Chief Justice Rayna Churchill cannot join us today due to health issues she is facing. So I have been given the responsibility and privilege of providing you with the State of the Judiciary address.

Before I do that, I would like to take this time to reflect on Chief Justice Churchill’s leadership and her impact since she was first appointed to the bench eleven years ago in 2009. As an appellate court justice, she approaches her role honestly and seriously, balancing the need to ensure justice is done with compassion for the situation of the litigants. As the Chief Justice, she is overall responsible for the administration of the court system. During her tenure, Chief Justice Churchill has overseen the development and addition of a highly effective, culturally-grounded peacemaking process in Family Court. Working with a skilled peacemaker, many litigants have been able to use the circle process to improve communication and identify issues in order to better resolve their disputes and begin to heal their relationships. Justice Churchill is also responsible for the many structural improvements that the Court has been implementing: from updating court rules to advocating for much-needed additional judges and staff to making recommendations to the Chief Executive and Band Assembly for the renovation of the District I, soon-to-be-former Community Center into a Court facility.

The Court of Central Jurisdiction’s new home will have enough space to accommodate two courtrooms, it will include secure and confidential areas for individuals to meet with their lawyers or the peacemaker, and it will have sufficient parking space, which will be a relief to the folks working in the Govern- ment Center. She has helped to bring us a long way from the trailer with no bathrooms that used to house the Tribal Court! We are grateful for her work on the court system’s behalf. We also deeply appreciate the Chief Executive and the Band Assembly for their steady and generous support of the initiatives she has overseen. Chi miigwech!

There are times when the Court does get a happy break from dealing with situations of strain and crisis. These include when the Justices are asked to perform wedding ceremonies, which Justice Churchill says brings her great joy.

We greatly miss having the Chief Justice present with us today as we recognize her more than a decade of steadfast service and leadership that has created a court system of which the Band is justifiably proud.

If Justice Clarence Boyd is present today, please stand. I also have the pleasure of recognizing Justice Boyd, who has faithfully served as the Associate Justice for District I for 16 years, until his retirement from the bench just this last Septem- ber. The Court is deeply indebted to him for his steady hand, wisdom, and dedication during these crucial years. Miigwech!

I would also like to recognize Justice Ramona Applegate, who was appointed in 2017 and serves as the Associate Justice from District II. She has been a wonderful addition to the bench, and we have been keeping her very busy. Justice Ap- plegate has expressed that she enjoys her judicial work, as it is her way to contribute to the well-being of the Band and its members. Please stand Justice Applegate and be recognized.

The newest appointment to the Court of Appeals was made this past October, with the appointment of Justice Elmer Nayquonabe as the new District I Justice. It is a new challenge for him, but he said he is looking forward to it. If Justice Nayquonabe could please stand and let us recognize him.

We are extremely fortunate to have such a distinguished judiciary.

As every attorney can tell you, while the judges and justices are very important, it is almost equally important to stay on the good side of the court clerks! Their job is to help out; it is not to offer legal advice.

In 2004, the Tribal Court had 961 cases filed. In 2019, there were 1,442 cases filed — which is more than a 50 percent increase. And every one of those cases involves multiple pleadings, hearings, and orders. In 2019, the court held 1,962 hearings and issued 3,793 orders. In addition, the court audited old records and closed out 2,743 of those old cases. These are enormous numbers for a staff of this size. Without the diligent hard work and reliability of the court staff, we would not be able to provide the level of justice services that we do. Would the Tribal Court staff please rise and accept my appreciation.

The crucial role of tribal courts

It has been said that tribal justice systems are one of the clearest expressions of tribal sovereignty and self-determina- tion. Tribal Courts are in a position to take into account the unique culture, history, and family values so fundamental to a sovereign nation. Nowhere is that more true than here at the Mille Lacs Band. In my years with the Court, I have witnessed the ongoing metamorphosis of the Band’s court system to one that more accurately mirrors the Band’s unique judicial philosophy and traditional theory of law.

The principle of zhaa we ni ma is always at the forefront of what we are attempting to accomplish in the court. The purpose is to maintain balance and keep the people together. Unlike state and federal courts’ adversarial systems, the Court is engaged in "a cooperative search for truth and justice." The individuals in the case, the lawyers, and the Judges all have a responsibility to this end. That does not mean that cases can’t be contentious at times, but we have a responsibility to keep Mille Lacs Band values in the proceeding.

The Band’s own court system is the best place for the Community’s children to be protected. It is the best place for offenses to be addressed and disputes to be resolved. As the growth in caseload shows, more and more individuals and agencies are choosing to bring their cases to the Tribal Court.

We are taking steps to improve access to justice and to be more user-friendly. You will see improvements to the Court’s website. You can go there now to find and read court decisions that have been approved for publication by the Court of Appeals. We have made the probate process easier for people to navigate with simplified court forms and a self-help guide. When a loved one passes, the family has other concerns, and getting through the court process smoothly should not be one of them. These forms and guides and many others can be found on the Court’s website.

Success story

The uniquely culturally reflective approach that the Tribal Court uses appears to be showing positive results in the lives and futures of Band members. I would like to share with you one story of a family, who, with the Band’s help, overcame the serious struggles that accompany chemical dependency and substance use disorder:

About five years ago, a young woman gave birth to a child. The mother admitted to having used drugs throughout her pregnancy. The baby was born having been prenatally exposed to drugs during the pregnancy and suffered painful withdrawal symptoms. The young mom admitted that she could not quit using without help and that she could not take care of the baby until she did. A Child in Need of Protection or Services (also referred to as a “CHIPS“ case) was filed, and custody of the baby was granted to the Mille Lacs Band through Family Services and the child was placed in foster care. Within a couple of weeks, the mother was able to obtain treatment at a program that let her have her baby with her. She successfully completed treatment and within nine months, the CHIPS case was closed. Great!

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. She relapsed, started a cycle of relapses, homelessness, and going in and out of jail on drug possession charges. She overdosed but fortunately survived. At one point, she believed that it would help her to leave the reservation community and go to treatment in another area. She would have periods of sobriety, several times getting close to having her child returned to her, but then would flounder again and go back to using.

After several years of this pattern, the mother found that she had exhausted her options and returned to the Mille Lacs community. But by now things had changed on the reservation. She was able to have temporary sober housing. Gradually, the mother, with the support of Family Services, started to access the programs and resources now available to her through the Band. She completed a Rule 25 chemical use assessment conducted by the Band, entered a Suboxone program, and started receiving outpatient treatment at the Red Brick House. She also began to address her issues of trauma, grief, and loss through individual therapy, including equine therapy.

She worked her case plan, and her weeks were kept full attending sobriety meetings, cultural events, and AA and NA meetings. She began working part-time and pursuing her education and obtained a driver’s license.

She then met and started a relationship with a sober partner. She had six solid months of sobriety and a strong network of positive sober supports. The child was returned to her care, under court supervision. She and her partner obtained a home through the new Wraparound Program. In the fall of 2019, feeling confident that the mother was strong in her sobriety and had the resources and skills to prevent relapse, the Court dismissed the case, and the child's foster parents withdrew a guardianship petition they had filed. The child came home. But by this time, Family Services and the Court had been involved in her and the child’s life for almost five full years.

If this had been a County court case, given the length of time of the CHIPS case and the mother’s repeated struggles with relapse, the County would have been required to petition to terminate the mother’s rights, and her child even may have been adopted. However, because it is Tribal Court, we can take the time that is necessary to help parents overcome their addictions — which as we know doesn’t often happen on the first try. There is a saying that, "Relapse is part of recovery." The Band's efforts to combat the deadly drug epidemic among its communities is paying off. The services and resources, including cultural resources, and family support that are available here made all the difference in the lives and futures of this young mother and her child.

But five years is too long for a child to wait to be reunified. We can and must do better.

Through the early intervention with parents and children, and a team effort to share information and coordinate services through a new Tribal Healing to Wellness Court process, we can more quickly and effectively help parents to get and stay clean and sober. Their children can go home more rapidly — or not have to be removed from their homes at all. Moreover, the family does not have to feel like they have to leave the reservation to achieve and maintain sobriety.

We are working on creating a Healing to Wellness Court here. A Healing to Wellness Court program to assist individuals suffering from substance abuse who are involved in the Tribal Court system will operate on four bedrock principles: accountability, coordination, collaboration, and culture. Participants in the program will be closely monitored and support- ed. The Court, the legal players, and all the necessary service providers will meet and staff each case and work as a unified team coordinating treatment and other services, and brainstorming together as to how to best meet the family’s needs.
Mille Lacs Band tribal culture is one of the Band’s most enduring strengths. With the guidance of knowledgeable Elders, the program participants will reconnect with their culture — which will be an essential factor in helping them to stay on the Good Red Road.

The Healing to Wellness program will be one way that the Mille Lacs Band Community can reach out and wrap its arms around those who are most in need of intervention and healing. We plan to implement the Healing to Wellness Court program once the Court moves into its new space, hopefully in August. We are eager to get started!

Miigwech for this time and for allowing me to share with you the State of the Mille Lacs Band Judicial Branch Address for 2020.