In a first-of-its kind symposium in the region on March 23, experts on public defense and tribal courts gathered for a discussion of Public Defense in Indian Country. In the United States, tribal courts operate under a different set of rules than non-tribal courts. The laws that govern these courts are also different, and the right to counsel is not always assured.
Attendance doubled expectations
Organizers of the symposium had originally expected about 30 people to attend. By the day of the symposium, about 60 lawyers, students, and native community members attended.
The right to counsel
In tribal courts, which have jurisdiction over tribal members and non-members who agree to the jurisdiction, not all criminal defendants have a right to counsel. Instead, in many tribal courts, misdemeanor crimes that carry a sentence of up to 1 year or a $5,000 fine are heard without a public defender. The symposium presenters discussed the theory behind this practice, the different systems that tribes across the country have created, and the impacts of a justice system that can hand out punishments without legal representation. Representatives from the Bronx Public Defenders office presented their “team approach” of defense that combines public services with public defense in order to address the issues that cause crime as much as the offenses themselves.
The 3rd Annual Gonzaga Indian Law Lecture
The evening before the symposium, Barbara Creel, Associate Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Southwest Indian Law Clinic at the University of New Mexico spoke on criminal law issues in tribal courts. Professor Creel highlighted that for federal courts, conviction in tribal courts counts towards charge or sentence enhancements. With no right to counsel in many of these courts, this means a defendant could be facing a federal charge or federal prison time based upon convictions rendered without representation.
About the Gonzaga Indian Law Lecture Series
The Indian Law Lecture Series at Gonzaga University School of Law started in October of 2009. The initial lecture was presented by the Federal Indian Law Program, the Indian Law Caucus and the Gonzaga Public Interest Law Project. The Annual Gonzaga Indian Law Lecture highlights speakers who discuss issues of importance in the area of Indian Law.