HELENA — Federal officials have threatened to cut off funding to the Blackfeet courts after finding unqualified and unvetted judges, prosecutors and staff running an unstable system that denies due process to those who appear before it and is overly influenced by tribal leaders.
A U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs review sent to tribal leaders Wednesday gave the court system failing marks in complying with its federal contract and identified 18 problems needing immediate action.
It also said the tribe needs to grant the judicial system greater independence from the ruling Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, which exerts significant influence that affects the courts' ability to operate fairly and impartially. The Tribal Council can hire and fire judges and prosecutors at will.
Federal funds for the year will be withheld after July 1 until steps are taken to fix the problems, BIA Regional Director Darryl LaCounte said in a letter to tribal chairman Willie Sharp Jr.
The tribal court system has $230,357 left of the $716,856 budgeted from the federal government for the year that ends Sept. 30.
Sharp said Thursday complaints about the lack of a separation of powers between the tribe's executive and judicial branches are nothing new. But he noted the council's authority over the courts is written in the tribe's constitution and would be tough to change.
"You can talk about separation of powers. That sounds fine and good, right?" Sharp said. "But the next time something comes up in the courtroom - land, property, repossession (of vehicles) - guess what? The council can't interfere. It's a two-edged sword. You can't run to the council and stop it."
The review, which was conducted in May, made reference to a long-running division between two factions of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, one led by Sharp and the other by state Sen. Shannon Augare. The two sides have severed relations, which has stymied government operations, resulted in the firings or demotions of tribal employees and prevented workers and vendors from being paid regularly.
The political turmoil has spilled over to the courts, resulting in the recent firings of the chief judge and chief prosecutor, and the demotion of the court administrator. They were replaced by a chief judge who doesn't have a law degree, prosecutors who have not gone through required background checks and a court administrator making $30,000 more than what is budgeted for her position, the report said.
Other staff have been fired or shuffled in the turmoil. Their replacements haven't been adequately trained and were learning their positions and court procedures by watching colleagues, the report found.
Sharp said those issues have been around awhile, and he believes the BIA was unfairly targeting him.
"Every tribal government has gone up there and wielded power over the tribal court. Why now?" he said. "My question is, 'Why didn't you come in a long time ago?'"
Sharp lost a re-election bid in Tuesday's primaries. He said he was still reviewing the report but would begin addressing the problems raised. He added much will be left to his successor when he leaves office in July.
"It's a fair amount of issues, so we need to take care of it for the reservation," Sharp said.
Among the other findings in the report:
- A tribal attorney said parents in family court weren't told they have the right to an attorney, and they were sometimes denied the right to cross-examine witnesses or present evidence.
- Child-support payments weren't being made on time.
- Court proceedings frequently were delayed.
- Court orders were being made without legal citations to support the decisions.
- Staff, not judges, routinely wrote court orders.
- The court had no judicial code of ethics.
- Confidential files were kept in an unsecured conference room.
The review also cited complaints filed after an arrest warrant was issued against Augare for failure to pay a fine imposed as part of a plea agreement in a drunken-driving case. Augare has said he paid the fine and he believed the arrest warrant was politically motivated.
Augare was arrested on the warrant and then released after the BIA refused to hold him in its detention center.