Tribal Court judge honored with judicial excellence award


On August 4, during a ceremony at the American Bar Association (ABA) Annual Meeting in Denver, the Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence awarded Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi (NHBP) Tribal Court Chief Judge Melissa L. Pope with the 2023 Judith S. Kaye Award for Judicial Excellence.

This award recognizes dedicated service by judicial officers who demonstrate knowledge of domestic and sexual violence and exemplary leadership developing courtroom responses to these issues.

Currently serving as the chief judge of the NHBP Tribal Court, Pope has been consistently reappointed by Tribal Council since February 2011, with the most recent four-year appointment in December 2022. Pope has also served in the elected position of chief justice of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Tribal Court of Appeals since 2009. In addition, Pope has been teaching American Indian Law as a member of the adjunct faculty at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law since 2007.

“Receiving this award not only reminds me of the Seventh Generation to come that I must work to protect so that violence, hopefully, does not touch their lives, but fills my heart with gratitude for the Seventh Generation who came before me and who sacrificed so much - many their very lives - so that I may do this work today,” said Pope. “I honor all those who have worked, are currently working, or will work in the future to end the violence that permeates the lives of Indigenous People, Tribal Nations, and Indigenous communities.”

Pope has been actively engaged in the anti-violence movement throughout her life.

Since being appointed as chief judge of NHBP Tribal Court, she has been involved with the efforts of NHBP to address the epidemic of violence against Indigenous People. As a delegate of the Intertribal Technical-Assistance Working Group on Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction (ITWG) and the NHBP Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Enactment Team, Pope worked in collaboration with NHBP Staff to develop the infrastructure, programs, and services needed to adopt a Domestic Violence Code that included restored jurisdiction pursuant to VAWA.

She has further utilized her knowledge, skills, and passion for building the NHBP court system in collaboration with the Tribal Council, Tribal Elders, and Tribal Citizens to not only create a Victim Services Department (VSD) but also integrate trauma-informed, victim-centered, traditional culturally honoring care into the very foundation of the NHBP Tribal Court. Under her leadership, she has expanded the VSD to now include two full-time staff, one staff in the Culture Department to plant, care for, and harvest Sacred Medicines to empower survivors, consistent access to a traditional female healer, and services that span the specific needs of each survivor.

Pope is committed to the fundamental belief that equality for one community can only be achieved through the equality of all.

She has developed opportunities for paths towards healing that extend across the types of cases before the NHBP Tribal Court and for providing paths to avoid entering or returning to court systems. In recognizing the importance of providing opportunities for healing to defendants and respondents, she continues to prioritize the safety of Survivors, their families and the community, as well as the fundamental requirement of accountability.

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