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Putting state court power behind tribal court orders
There are a dozen American Indian tribal courts that operate in Minnesota. They, like their state court counterparts, hand down rulings on civil cases including child protection, contracts and taxes. But the two court systems don't always honor each others orders. Now some tribal and Minnesota state court judges have asked the State Supreme Court to adopt a new rule that would formally put state court enforcement power behind tribal court's civil judgements.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Court recently declined to enforce a Minnesota state court order to garnish the wages of a Mille Lacs Band employee. The tribal court said generally tribal courts should honor Minnesota state court judgements. But since Minnesota's Constitution did not require state courts to honor Mille Lacs tribal court judgements, it would not enforce the state's garnishment order. To achieve some reciprocity, a group of state and tribal court judges petitioned the Minnesota Supreme Court to put what's called, "full faith and credit" behind tribal court judgements.

The group's co-chairman, Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Robert Schumacher, says the change is particularly important at this point in time.

"Within the past several years indian tribal courts have grown, have progressed in the sense that we might look at them, a state court judge may look at them and say, 'you know they're becoming more and more like us.' Their rules of civil procedure, they follow the federal rules of civil procedure," says Schumacher.

But some tribal members such as Marvin Manypenny from White Earth say tribal courts have not progressed enough. He alleges that tribal councils influence tribal court orders. To allow those orders to be backed up by Minnesota courts he says would be fundamentally unjust.

"This is just out and out wrong," Manypenny says. "And the people that take the time and really get into, delve into what's going on here, they'll see what we're saying here."

Ray Bellcourt, also from White Earth agrees. Bellcourt, who considers himself an activist for tribal constitutional reform says since some tribal courts are under control of tribal administration. He says they don't enjoy the same separation of powers as Minnesota's court system.

"Is there any United States citizens out there other than us that would allow for such a system? No checks and balances, a five-member body that has the power to overrule a court decision. I mean how many people out here would go for that?" Bellcourt asks.

Judge Schumacher says tribal courts have as much separation of power as U.S. federal courts.

"Federal judges are appointed by the President, the tribal judges are appointed by the chairman of the tribe or the tribal council. The only difference is that in the federal system, which we're proud of, federal judges are appointed for life," he says.

Schumacher says safeguards are built in to the rule. If there's some concern about how a tribal court arrived at its decision, state court judges have the final word on whether to recognize that tribal court order.

But David Herr of the Supreme Court's Advisory Committee on the General Rules of Practice says his committee voted down the petition and suggests the Minnesota Supreme Court do the same. He says committee members say the issue is so complex it should be studied further, perhaps by the Minnesota legislature.

"I think the committee was certainly interested in whether or not there were legislative answers to at least some of the substantive issues that wouldn't be better, or at least more thoroughly aired than our committee or the Supreme Court would be able to do," Herr says.

Wisconsin, Michigan and North Dakota have adopted similar rules that put the full faith and credit of their state courts behind tribal court judgements. A decision by the Minnesota Supreme Court on whether to adopt the same rule is expected soon.

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