State and Tribal Courts: Strategies for Bridging the Divide

Aaron F. Arnold, Sarah Cumbie Reckess, & Robert V. Wolf, State and Tribal Courts: Strategies for Bridging the Divide, 47 Gonz. L. Rev. 801 (2012)


It is a chilly Friday morning at the Itasca County District Court in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Fifteen men and women, all defendants facing criminal drug charges, sit quietly in the gallery of the wood-paneled courtroom waiting for the court session to begin. At first glance, nothing about this court seems out of the ordinary. But behind the judge’s bench is something not usually found in a state courtroom. Next to the familiar stars and stripes of the American flag and the blue and gold Minnesota state flag stands a third flag, featuring a yellow triangle inside a bright red circle. Around the circle, in bold black letters, are the words “Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe,” the name of the Native American tribe whose land overlaps part of Itasca County.

The door to the judge’s chambers opens softly and instead of one judge, two judges take the bench. On the left, in the familiar jet-black robe of a state court judge, is Itasca County District Court Judge John Hawkinson. On the right, wearing a robe adorned with two thick vertical stripes of colorful beads and thread, is Leech Lake Tribal Court Judge Korey Wahwassuck. Together, Judge Hawkinson and Judge Wahwassuck created this special court, known as the Leech Lake-Itasca County Wellness Court, to address the persistent challenge of drug and alcohol abuse, a problem that afflicts both Native American and non-Native residents.

To the court’s participants, nothing seems unusual about this innovative approach to justice. To them it makes perfect sense that state and tribal judges would join forces to deal with the community’s problems. And that is exactly what happens. The two judges jointly hear each case that comes before the court, whether the offender is Native American or non-Native. They make all critical decisions about the case together and are able to use their diverse backgrounds and experiences to arrive at the best possible outcomes. Native American offenders have reported a greater sense of trust and respect for the court, and non-Native offenders often express their appreciation for the thoughtful decision-making that two judges bring to each case. The court has broken down old barriers between the state and tribal governments and built a foundation for future collaboration.

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