Montana Legal training program targets tribal justice system Ultimate goal is to increase capabilities of tribal court process

By Matt Volz

Associated Press

PABLO, Mont. (AP) -- Melody Sure Chief is like many tribal prosecutors in that the 51-year-old grandmother of 18 has no law degree and all of her courtroom experience comes from two decades working her way up as a clerk, public defender and finally a prosecutor.

The Blackfeet tribal prosecutor joined more than a dozen others from Indian reservations in Montana, Washington and North Dakota recently on the Flathead Indian Reservation looking to shore up their courtroom savvy with legal training from the Montana U.S. Attorney's Indian Country Unit. The topics ranged from nuts-and-bolts tactics and strategies to a mock trial where prosecutors had to try a domestic violence case with a reluctant witness.

"I want to be able to do it right. That's why I'm here," said Sure Chief. "Every day's a learning process. If you can learn how to handle your witnesses and enter your evidence and make your objections, that makes you more efficient in the court."

Of the 20 prosecutors working in the tribal court systems on Montana's seven Indian reservations, only six have law degrees. Sure Chief doesn't think that lack of formal legal training has hurt her, nor has it hindered her ability to try hundreds of cases ranging from driving license infractions to sexual assault.

Federal prosecutors don't think so, either.

"A young kid who comes into a U.S. attorney's office and winds up working in Indian Country, they will try in a five year span more cases than most lawyers will try in a lifetime," said Montana U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter. "Whether the lawyers are licensed lawyers or are (unlicensed) prosecutors, they want to improve their skills."

The training is part of a big push by the U.S. Attorney's office to improve communication between the federal and tribal justice systems so that fewer cases slip through the cracks and so that the tribes can eventually handle more, and more serious, cases.

In Montana, that's meant the creation of the U.S. Attorney's Indian Country Unit, the addition of four new assistant U.S. attorneys, twice-monthly meetings with tribal prosecutors to discuss cases, and training sessions for tribal prosecutors, judges and investigators.

Plus, one tribal prosecutor with a law degree has been appointed a special assistant U.S. attorney who can follow a case into federal court, and three other lawyers' appointments are pending.

Cotter's changes have been noticed by the Indian Law and Order Commission, which will put some of those ideas into its list of recommended practices in a report being prepared for Congress and the White House. The commission, created by Congress in 2010 and formed last year, is tasked with coming up with specific proposals to make Indian Country safer with existing money and resources.

Jeff Davis, the commission's executive director, said Montana's twice-monthly meetings between federal and tribal prosecutors are "unheard of" where the past practice has been little or no communication over the cases that passed between the jurisdictions.

Training sessions such as the one held last Wednesday and Thursday in Pablo also is an example of how to bring people together and create a collegial atmosphere, Davis said.

"In other areas, the tribes have serious complaints about the lack of federal involvement," Davis said. "We're going to take this stuff and say there are ways you can do this."

The ultimate goal is to increase the capabilities of the tribal court system so that they can prosecute more serious cases, reduce the number of cases that go unprosecuted and reduce violent crime on reservations, Cotter said.

One of the benchmarks laid out in the Tribal Law and Order Act passed by Congress in 2010 is to eventually give tribes the ability to sentence an offender up to three years in prison.

Currently, the Indian Civil Rights Act limits the tribes to a maximum sentence of one year and a $5,000 fine.

"I think we will find in 15 years, looking back, that it was a great piece of legislation building capacity in tribal courts," Cotter said.

Published: Mon, Apr 9, 2012