Court system protects tribe’s sovereignty

Lisa Reed

Tribal leaders, tribal members, and city and state officials join the Judicial Court System’s team to celebrate the grand opening of the new Choctaw Nation Judicial Center in Durant.

Photo by Deidre Elrod

The Choctaw Nation Judicial Branch oversees a variety of civil and criminal matters. The system is designed to protect an individual’s rights, and to provide fair justice to all who enter its jurisdiction. It can provide results in chaotic and sensitive matters. It provides protection and results in the best interest of Choctaw children and elders. The court system is also important in protecting the Choctaw Nation’s sovereignty.

“This is a day to celebrate for the Choctaw Nation,” Chief Gary Batton said during the grand opening of the Choctaw Nation’s new Judicial Center on April 25 in Durant. “It is a celebration of our sovereignty, and of us as a true tribal government.” 

Chief Batton pointed to the Constitution of the United States and then the Choctaw Nation Constitution on the walls of the Ishahli Courtroom. He stressed the importance of the commitment to bring the Choctaw Nation Constitution to life and provide for the wellbeing of the Choctaw people, exhorting the inherent right to govern ourselves.

Attorneys were appointed as judges – each among the best in their field – to fill the three levels of the court system.

At the District Court level are Presiding District Judge Rick Branam, District Judge Mark Morrison, and Special District Judge Rebecca Cryer.

Just like the state and federal levels, the Choctaw Nation has an Appellate Court. It consists of three appellate judges, Presiding Judge Pat Phelps, and Appellate Judges Bob Rabon and Warren Gotcher.

The third level – the Constitutional Court – is the Choctaw Nation’s “Supreme Court.” A case can work its way through the District and Appellate Court levels to be heard by the Constitutional Court, which was established and still meets monthly according to the Choctaw Nation Constitution. It has one attorney judge, Chief Justice David Burrage, and two lay judges who are required to be members of the Choctaw Nation. The tribal judges are Judge Fred Bobb and Judge Mitch Mullin.

One of the Choctaw Nation’s first judges, Justice Joe Taylor, attended the ceremony for the Judicial Center and remarked on how the tribe is moving forward. Taylor was previously confirmed as Chief Justice in 1978 along with justices Charlie Jones and Ed Curtis. 

“The tribe is continuing to grow in stature and has the respect of so many people and other tribes. When we first came on board we only resolved intra-tribal disputes,” Taylor stated.

“Those parameters have been expanded to the point now that we settle disputes between tribal members and non-tribal members in civil cases, divorces, and now criminal justice,” Taylor said.

Judicial Executive Officer Pam Young advised of additional implementations, as in, “We implemented onsite drug testing within the court system in 2015, due to the judges often needing to have an immediate answer on the status of a party to a suit, particularly with regard to the pending custody of our Choctaw children. We first began by inviting Choctaw Nation’s Rapid Results staff to sit in on the docket, prepared and ready to provide testing and a result to the judges. We then implemented the Probation Department and tribal commissioned officers within Judicial, each certified under our Indian Health Service, and delegated the drug testing to the Probation Department.

In 2017, with escalation in jurisdiction over felonies and misdemeanors, the demand became feasible to incorporate a drug court in their five-year strategic plan and set as one of their goals. They plan to implement a fully operational drug court next year. 

Young added, “When Judicial collaborated with the Choctaw Nation Department of Public Safety to start a probation program with CLEET commissioned officers, these unified efforts are now bringing forward successful stories of rehabilitating and sobriety to the offenders. With an estimated 100 probationers in Choctaw Nation custody of supervision, two offices and check-in sites – Talihina and Durant – and three probation officers, we are now able to assist in changing lives for the better.” 

Because of the way the structure is set up and the dockets are handled, judges can often recognize whether someone needs rehabilitation. The probation system, “more of a mentor system,” Burrage said, has helped many Choctaw people find their way.

Community service can be utilized to help work off court fines or court costs.

“During the last three weeks, we have shuttled them to locations where they helped paint and remodel sober living homes,” Young said. Halfway houses and sober living homes are utilized as a next step, once an offender is discharged from a rehabilitation center.

“They need to be kept out of their environment for about two years, away from all the temptation,” Young explained. “Sober homes are usually faith-based homes in which we have confidence and trust. After the sober home, they graduate into a halfway house. Probation officers can help them with every step of the journey. Our probation officers have helped with obtaining GEDs, driver’s licenses, jobs. No car? They have even purchased bikes to help them with transportation.”

According to reports, one young man has been on probation for two years, the longest he has been clean since he was 17 years of age. He is actually a success story and was due to graduate about six months ago. He went before the judge and said, “I don’t want to graduate, I want to stay. I’m not ready. This keeps me clean.”

As the Choctaw Nation’s court system continues to expand, the Choctaw people and the communities in which they live will benefit from the resources currently put in place, and many more to come. Young states, “Our Judicial associates are exceptional, in that outside of their skill set, they each have the servant’s heart it takes to reach our daily goals in serving.”

 

E-filing adds convenience

Planning for the Choctaw Nation Judicial Center included alleviating barriers of entry to the court system that make it hard for people to seek justice. “We want to make it as easy as possible for our Choctaw people to use our Court,” Chief Justice David Burrage said.

By adding an electronic filing system, tribal members living in many of the remote areas of the Choctaw Nation, with little access to the internet, can access the user-friendly e-filing application on their cell phone. It provides 24/7 filing and access to electronically filed documents via a secure web portal.

The Choctaw Nation is the first tribal court to utilize Odyssey, an application from Tyler Technologies Inc. of Dallas.

In addition to the portal, a new website is adding more convenience. Choctawnationcourt.com went live in May.

“Choctaw citizens within our jurisdiction can petition the court within our legislative codes electronically or by walking into our Durant and Talihina Court Clerk offices,” Judicial Executive Officer Pam Young said. “All filing fees are $50. Tribal citizens can walk in, they can call, or they can access the petitions online. If anyone has any questions or isn’t sure if we have jurisdiction, our CNO codes are available online. They can research the codes to see if their situation is applicable, prior to petitioning the court at the $50 filing fee.”

The Choctaw Nation Talihina District Court is located at 702 Church St. and the Judicial Center is at 2250 Chukka Hina in Durant.

Pic of Tribal Judges
Three levels of the court system are represented by, front row from left, Appellate Judge Bob Rabon, District Civil Court Judge Mark Morrison, Special District Court Judge Rebecca Cryer; second row, Appellate Presiding Judge Pat Phelps, Appellate Judge Warren Gotcher, Chief District Judge Rick Branam; and third row, Constitutional Court Judge Mitch Mullin, Chief Justice David Burrage, and Judge Fred Bobb. 

Biskinik June 2019