Connors receives prestigious award for excellence

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

The prestigious Hilda Gage Judicial Excellence Award is just the latest in a long line of honors given to Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Connors, but the judge insists that what is important is not himself but the work done on behalf of peacemaking and restorative principles and the Michigan Indian community.

And he takes very little credit for progress on that work, but instead heaps praise on those around him. “I’m just a cog in the wheel,” he says.

Noting that he is “100 percent Irish,” but got involved with tribal issues because it stood out for him as the right thing to do, Connors says, “We have as much to learn if not more from the Indian tribes than vice versa. I choose to call myself an ally.”

“A very well-known ally,” comments the judge’s current intern, John Petoskey, who comes from a long line of tribal leaders in the area of Michigan named after them. “It’s good to have someone drawing attention to the tribes so consistently over so many years.”

Connors, who has been a Washtenaw County Trial Court judge since 1991 and chief judge for more than a decade, has also served as the appointed Judge Pro Tem for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. His energetic and long-term work on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which has certainly been in concert with a large number of collaborators from tribes and agencies, stems from both his respect for Native American principles and his deeply felt desire to serve children.

“ICWA should be the gold standard for all of our children,” he says.

When the Hilda Gage Judicial Excellence Award was given at the end of October, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack commented, “Judge Connors has led groundbreaking efforts to strengthen the juvenile court in Washtenaw County and he has been an instrumental collaborator in developing strong state-tribal court relations. His impact on child welfare cases transcends the systemic reform efforts he has undertaken. [H]e carefully listens to each family’s story... The community’s respect for the juvenile court has grown because of his approach.”

The namesake of the award given by the Michigan Judges Association, “the judicial organization for the circuit and Court of Appeals judges,” was the chief judge of Oakland County; in the 1980s she was the  first woman elected chair of the National Conference of State Trial Judges of the American Bar Association and the first woman president of the Michigan Judges Association in 1988.

“I was very thankful to the Michigan Judges Association because when we were working on the Michigan Indian Family Preservation Act,  I went to them asking them to endorse it and they were the first organization to sign on. That really has been my involvement with the association, although of course I’m a member. So this award was a surprise,” Judge Connors says.

The catalyst for the Michigan Indian Family Preservation Act (MIFPA) was a “special committee” convened by the Michigan Supreme Court in 2008, chaired by now-retired Justice Michael Cavanagh, to consider how to improve ICWA compliance in the state.

Quoting from a presentation by Maribeth Preston, J.D., of the Michigan Court Improvement Program, another important partner, “ICWA is ‘remedial’ in nature and aims to correct over 200 years of failed government policy and practices toward the Native American people.” These negative policies included the Indian Boarding Schools, which forcibly placed children in schools where they could “unlearn” their Native American ways, and the more recent Indian Adoption Project (1958-1967), involving non-Indian families adopting  Native American children.

Connors, Judge Robert Butts from Cheboygan County Probate Court, and Judge Allie Greenleaf Maldonado of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (who just received the State Bar Representative Assembly Unsung Hero Award) were among the well-known advocates from the judiciary who served on the special committee chaired by Justice Cavanagh.

“While ICWA had been in existence since the late seventies,” Connors explains, “there was substantial non-compliance, primarily by state institutions around the country. We here in Michigan said, we don’t want to be one of those states. So this incredible task force took a good look at it, and the need for MIFPA came out of that.”

Another outcome of that task force was a guidebook for judges, published in 2010 but frequently updated, under the oversight of Kelly Wagner of the Child Welfare Division of the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) who also oversees implementation. Connors, who meets often with Wagner, played a leading role in the development.

“We were getting rulings all over the place; we had some judges making decisions about tribal lives who were not even aware of the federal law and tribal laws,” commented Homer Mandoka, Tribal Council Chair of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi who was active in the task force. “With the guidelines, all judges have the same rules, and Judge Connors was instrumental in that.”

Mandoka, a tireless leader in Indian children’s rights, comments, “With the passage of MIFPA, Michigan has become a leader in the country.”

And Connors agrees. “I have seen a paradigm shift in the way of thinking of workers on the reunification docket — far better compliance with ICWA,” he says.

But they caution that vigilance is necessary for progress to continue. “There are always issues as far as enforcing ICWA, tensions between jurisdictions. That’s in part because enrollment criteria for various tribes are so diverse,” comments intern Petoskey “but some courts are much better than others at identifying which children are eligible for transfer to Indian courts.”

An official Tribal/State/Federal Forum has been convened to help resolve some of this. “We’re really going after some very deep issues, there are some great great great discussions happening. I do know that in Indian Country we’re looked at as a real model,” the judge says.

Closer to home, Connors and other Washtenaw County Trial Court judges formed a Peacemaking Court to apply Native American and restorative justice principles to juvenile court proceedings.

Contending that “Current state court justice systems are structured around ‘either-or’ decision-making [and] create division within the community,” and that “labeling and dividing continues the cycle of wrongdoing,” the brochure promoting the peacemaking court emphasizes that it is voluntary, that it continues its support of peacemaking outside the court, and that it is highly successful.

“If you’re talking about the reunification docket, then our style of advocacy and our approach should mirror the goal. So peacemaking is exactly the tool you would use,” says Judge Connors.  “The traditional ‘criminal’-based model is all right for parental terminations, but we’re trying to put families back together and create a supportive community — for the safety of the child.”

All of these activities are a practical reflection of Judge Connors’ belief system, one he shares with many colleagues and many Native Americans. “We can choose to continue to feed misunderstanding and prejudice – or we can choose to be enlightened,” he says

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