Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

Tribal Court makes presentation at state judicial conference

October 27, 2006

CHOCTAW – Chief Justices of the Mississippi Supreme Court and the Choctaw Supreme Court shared the podium Wednesday, Oct. 25, in a program designed to acquaint state trial court judges with the workings of the tribal courts.

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr. invited Supreme Court Chief Justice Rae Nell Vaughn of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and tribal Attorney General Don Kilgore to make a one-hour presentation to the Mississippi Trial and Appellate Judges Fall Conference.

Chief Justice Smith also recently invited Chief Justice Vaughn to join the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission, which is developing a comprehensive, unified approach to improve poor people’s access to the civil justice system. Chief Justice Vaughn said she shares other commission members’ concerns about economic barriers that impede poor people from gaining access to the court system.

One hundred and eleven judges of the County, Chancery and Circuit Courts, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court participated in the fall conference, which began Wednesday and concluded Friday at the Silver Star Hotel Convention Center.

Chief Justice Vaughn outlined the history of tribal government and the structure and evolution of the tribal court system. She noted that the game of stick ball was once used to settle disputes between villages or tribes.

Tribal courts now consist of a Supreme Court, Criminal Court, Civil Court, Youth Court and Peacemaker Court.

“This tribe is a sovereign nation and we exercise that sovereignty every day through the courts, law enforcement, health care,” she said.

“Our tribal laws are customary laws. They are laws that are handed down orally from generation to generation,” Chief Justice Vaughn said.

That oral tradition of law is being preserved on video tape so that future generations may hear it from the mouths of the elders, Chief Justice Vaughn said. “We have had this recent reawakening of trying to get back in touch with who we are as a people.”

While the state and tribal courts are separate systems, judges and lawyers in both courts are called upon more and more to determine which system has jurisdiction, Chief Justice Smith said.

Kilgore said that the growing business interests of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians have required judges and lawyers to sort out whether state or tribal courts have jurisdiction over contractual disputes and other civil litigation.

Kilgore noted that the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has more than 20 business enterprises located from Chicago to Mexico. Those businesses are expected to produce more than $700 million this year.

“As the Choctaw Tribe has become more and more prosperous in the business world, we have gotten a lot more attention,” Kilgore said.

State and tribal law enforcement agencies and their respective judicial systems must sort out jurisdictional issues regarding criminal allegations involving tribal members off reservation land. The tribal court conducts an extradition hearing for a Choctaw living on reservation land and facing criminal charges off the reservation. State and local law enforcement agencies and tribal police have strict pursuit policies when a chase crosses jurisdictional lines, Kilgore explained.

Some elements of the Choctaw tribal court system have no equivalent in the state court system. The Peacemaker Court attempts to resolve disputes by getting people to talk and work out their differences. There are no lawyers in Peacemaker Court, Chief Justice Vaughn said.

For instance, a dispute among neighbors over one’s persistent loud music could land in Peacemaker Court. That forum can solve the problem better than filing criminal charges, she said. The peacemaker seeks to work out an understanding between neighbors who have to live next to each other.

Some child custody disputes among tribal members are handled in Peacemaker Court. “Even though moms and dads are divorcing, they are not divorcing those kids, and they have got to find a way to raise them together,” Chief Justice Vaughn said.

The tribal court system has undergone changes and reorganization in recent years. Chief Justice Vaughn credited state Circuit Court Judge Vernon Cotten of Carthage with making some of those changes possible through his work as a tribal judge. Judge Cotten served as a special judge for the Choctaw tribal courts for 23 years before he became a state circuit judge for the 8th District.

“Judge Cotten laid a lot of the ground work. He was one of the ones who was here working to strengthen and raise the court system to the next level,” Chief Justice Vaughn said.

“My hope is that we can continue working and strengthening and building these relationships,” Chief Justice Vaughn said.