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Exit 509 sign at Crow Agency

Exit 509 sign at Crow Agency. 

The Crow Tribe's government took a major step earlier this month toward overhauling its judicial and criminal justice systems — changes that Crow legislators say would strengthen the independence of the tribe's three branches of government.

By a 14-0 vote, the Legislative Branch voted Oct. 19 to send the Crow Tribal Justice Improvement Act to Chairman A.J. Not Afraid, who has yet to act on the bill.

The legislation would create a Department of Justice within the tribal government, including stepped-up law enforcement on the Crow Reservation, where police under the direction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Officers have long been considered stretched too thin to be effective. It would also would expand the Judicial Branch and require regular elections for all judges, some of whom serve as appointees under current law.

The proposal is the product of four years' work within the legislature and with members of the Crow Tribe to establish a more independent law enforcement and court system, Speaker of the Senate Eric Birdinground said in an interview Sunday.

“This is a starting point, a foundation ... we’re wanting to change and move forward and to see all the inconsistencies that we’ve been seeing and find solutions,” Birdinground said. “I think that this is a good starting foundation that would move us to the future.”

Within the Department of Justice, a newly created position of chief prosecutor, subject to nomination by the chairman and confirmation by the legislature, would assume the duties currently delegated to the office of tribal attorney general.

Under current law, tribal attorneys general serve “at the pleasure of the chairman,” which Birdinground said has historically allowed politics to be injected into how prosecutions of tribal members tended to play out.

“It was customary for families that are experiencing prosecution, that they would in turn talk to the elected (officials) to reduce sentences,” Birdinground said. “That’s a main reason why Sen. (Paul) Hill has been advocating for this bill for a while now. With crime rising, the meth, the killings, it’s starting to be a real concern.”

Both Birdinground and Hill, the Judicial Committee Chairman and one of the architects of the bill, cited this summer’s triple-murder in Lodge Grass and a years-long struggle with rising crime and drug abuse on the reservation as an incentive for expanding law enforcement on the reservation.

“We hear about it, but there’s nothing done about it. Some people I’d see, people would be talking and saying this person died this way, and there was nothing being done about it,” Hill said.

The bill would establish a Law and Order Commission consisting of seven appointees from different legislative districts to provide oversight for the Department of Justice. The panel would appoint a director to oversee the department’s day-to-day operations, including separate divisions of law enforcement and drug enforcement.

The Judicial Branch of the tribe would also see significant changes, mostly intended to subject more judges to election, rather than the current system in which several of those positions are selected by the chief tribal judge.

Currently, the Judicial Branch of the tribal government consists of two courts. The Crow Tribal Court comprises a chief tribal judge and two associate judges, all of whom are elected to four-year terms. The appeals court, however, consists of a single appellate judge — selected by the chief tribal judge — who in turn selects from a pool of associate appellate judges to form the three-judge panel on a case-by-case basis.

Under the proposed changes, the composition of the Crow Tribal Court remain largely the same, but would include one additional associate judge. The appeals court, however, would consist entirely of elected officials, with one full-time “chief justice” and five part-time associate judges.

The changes to the court system are also aimed at attracting more economic investment on the reservation, according to Hill.

“We look at other jurisdictions, they have stronger businesses, and as a tribe we need to be sure about bringing business in and having proper judges that can take civil cases,” Hill said. “We do a lot of sovereign immunities, we need to start making arbitration laws.”

Although the bill passed the legislature unanimously, current Chief Tribal Judge Leroy Not Afraid has stated his opposition to the bill, although he declined to comment beyond an initial statement provided to the Billings Gazette.

“The Crow legislature has proposed legislation that is looking to re-vamp the whole entire Crow judicial system,” Not Afraid wrote in an Oct. 21 statement submitted to The Billings Gazette. “The bill in its amended form is looking to unilaterally remove me from office without due process of law.”

In a subsequent interview on Monday, Not Afraid declined to elaborate, stating, “In order to maintain confidence in the judicial system my office declines to comment.”

Despite the tribal government’s ongoing impasse over the still-unsigned annual budget, legislative branch attorney Dawn Gray said the estimated $1 million price tag to expand the judicial branch and create the justice department would be covered under the budget approved by the legislature last month.

After the new justice system’s initial year of operation, Gray said, the tribe will likely be able to cover much of the added cost under a grant program administered by the U.S. Department of Justice.


Morning Reporter

General assignment reporter for the Billings Gazette.