Spirit Lake Tribal Court lacks access to appeals

Staff Writer
Devils Lake Journal

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Criminal defendants and civil lawsuit parties in Spirit Lake Tribal Court have no access to appeals because the tribe failed to renew a contract, two former tribal judges say.

The Spirit Lake tribe used to contract with the Aberdeen, S.D.-based Northern Plains Intertribal Court of Appeals to handle appeals from the tribal court in Fort Totten.

Former tribal judge Peter Belgarde Jr. told the Forum  that when the annual fee of $3,000 was due last summer to extend the contract for another year, the tribal council failed to renew it.

Belgarde said Northern Plains Intertribal Court of Appeals sent several written reminders that the contract was up for renewal. He said that after several reminders went unanswered, he hand-delivered renewal notices for each tribal council member and spoke with several, including Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton, about the urgent need to extend the contract.

"I was assured by Chairman Yankton that he would be acting on it quickly, but nothing happened," Belgarde said.

Belgarde and Molly McDonald, another former tribal judge, said the tribal court has lacked access to appeals for more than a year. The tribal court handles minor crimes, punishable by up to a year in jail, as well as civil matters — contract disputes, collections, foster care placement and parental rights cases for American Indian residents of the Spirit Lake Nation.

Yankton told the Forum that the tribe's law and order committee was exploring establishing the tribe's own court of appeals.

The lack of an appeals process means tribal members' legal rights are being violated, Belgarde said.

"The appeal, it's their right," he said.

McDonald said the tribal council also is violating the tribe's own governing document, since it specifies that appeals in tribal court should be heard by the Northern Plains Intertribal Court of Appeals.

Cheryl Good Iron, of Fort Totten, said the Spirit Lake Tribal Court lacks independence, as it falls under the authority of the tribal council.

"They have control," said Good Iron, a tribal member who has been a critic of Yankton and his administration.

One of the issues that could not be appealed was a failed petition drive, led by Good Iron, earlier this year to oust Yankton. The petitions initially were upheld by McDonald, who ordered that all activities of the tribal council cease until the Yankton removal issue was decided. But the decision was amended by Belgarde, who said the tribe needed to keep functioning.

An outside judge was brought in from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, who ruled that a dozen signatures were invalid. The petition was dismissed and Yankton remained in office.

McDonald said Yankton tried to fire Belgarde and McDonald in October 2011. They fought their dismissal, noting that the chairman could not fire them without council approval.

The two will remain on the bench until their contracts expire at the end of February.