Published Oct. 20, 2020
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In my blog post on Sept. 28, I told you we were kicking off a long, slow research process designed to unearth everything we need to know about sovereignty: the costs, our capabilities, impacts on local governments, and what's already being done by tribes in other states.
Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt also established a sovereignty commission for the state and is beginning to receive research results. One study we know about is a report on the potential impacts of tribal sovereignty on state finances. As Oklahomans, you'll want to know the impact is significant.
Assembling the Building Blocks
This reminds me of what it was like to build our house—the foundation had to be dug and poured, and then the framework started going up. After that came the electrical and plumbing and HVAC conduits. It wasn't until later in the process that the walls and floors went in and things started to take shape. We're trying to build something now which will last a very long time.
I'm now reviewing a first draft of a list of pros and cons of some of the major questions out there. As you're aware, we've been looking at Indian Child Welfare, taxation, regulation, law enforcement, and other aspects. More will follow from this list because these items are designed to jump-start some of our deliberations. I'm already seeing a clear pattern emerge: everything has possible downstream consequences that have to be considered, and everything is complex.
Next on our radar, we're looking at changes to our Traffic Code, and incorporating a Weights and Measures Code. All sovereign governments have this code to define the legal measure of weights and measures within their territories—modern commerce depends on it.
The Changes Already Underway
As I said earlier, the first effects of increased sovereignty we'll feel are in the fields of law enforcement, justice, and Indian Child Welfare. We've hired ten new Tribal Police officers and are training and equipping them right now. We've also hired six of seven new social workers, and we are interviewing candidates to fill four new Tribal Prosecutor positions and two new Public Defender positions.
Action has already moved to the courtroom, where our Choctaw Nation attorneys have been asserting our reservation status in state criminal cases. We've had two lower court judges find that our reservation continues to exist. As soon as the higher court rules on this issue, we'll begin prosecuting many of the dismissed state court cases in our tribal courts. Our Judicial Center was built with this in mind, and we'll be ready to handle the increase in cases.
On October 14, United States Attorney Brian Kuester and First Assistant Attorney Chris Wilson briefed Tribal Council on views and activities of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma. We'll be working closely with that court going forward and have already been establishing closer ties. Kuester and Wilson explained to Council the ways in which the Court is responding to the changes now underway. Seven Assistant United States Attorneys have been assigned to Oklahoma for the next six months, and an additional seven are supporting the Court's needs via telework. Caseloads are rising dramatically from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation—they now have 677 cases waiting. Their typical annual case load is only about 120.
As Kuester and Wilson explained to Council, their prioritization process is (1) those who are currently in custody, and (2) those considered the most dangerous offenders. These offenders are being transferred immediately to federal custody. They hope Congress will increase budgets and appropriate additional funds for the Court's work. They also indicated that U.S. Attorney General William Barr is aware of their needs.
What's Been Accomplished
We've now contacted or visited all the county jails with a view to possibly sending tribal prisoners their way. We're not certain we want to build jails of our own if there's plenty of capacity in nearby county jails. It's a question for future discussion.
Going back to assembling building blocks, Tribal Council did some heavy lifting in its October session, as it passed several codes required for the functioning of any modern, sovereign government. These have the effect of strengthening our tribal sovereignty and our justice system. Council enacted codes dedicated to tribal prosecution, jury selection, criminal law, and a public defender's office.
The tribal prosecution code sets the purpose, duties, and responsibilities of the Office of the Tribal Prosecutor. The office will prosecute criminal activity in the name of the Choctaw Nation to enforce the provisions of the Choctaw Nation Constitution, Choctaw Nation Tribal Code, United States Constitution, and other applicable laws.
Amendments to the criminal code will allow the Nation to prosecute offenses listed in the federal Major Crimes Act and allow for broader sentencing options of defendants found guilty in Choctaw Nation District Court. Major crimes include murder, assault, robbery, embezzlement and felony sexual offenses.
To ensure due process in judicial system proceedings, Council approved legislation defining how juries for trials will be formed. Potential jurors include tribal members, spouses of tribal members, employees of the Choctaw Nation and/or permanent residents within the territorial boundaries of the Nation. Exclusions from jury service include legal professions, law enforcement officers, elected officials and convicted felons.
Providing an opportunity for all defendants to have legal counsel, a bill establishing a Choctaw Nation Public Defender's Office received unanimous support from Tribal Council.
Council bills and agendas may be found here.
Something that's becoming increasingly evident is that sovereignty has to be built on a solid foundation. It's not just about having a flag. There's a lot of elbow grease that goes into establishing it, and that's what will be required to maintain it. We're in that phase of our work now—to put the nuts and bolts in place. Keep us in your prayers and please ask for God's guidance in our effort. God bless you all and the Choctaw Nation!
For more information or updates visit www.choctawnation.com/sovereignty.