2019 State of the Judicial Branch


By Chief Justice Rayna Churchill

Aaniin, Madame Chief Executive Benjamin, distinguished members of the Band Assembly, my fellow Mille Lacs Band Members, employees, and guests. Welcome to the 2019 State of the Band Address. It is a pleasure to provide you with the State of the Judiciary Address as prescribed by the Band Statutes.

On behalf of the Judicial Branch, it is a pleasure to see you all after the festivities of the holidays. I hope you all have started the new year in a good way with family, friends, laughter, and love.

I, Rayna Churchill, have the privilege of being reappointed to serve as the District III Appellate Justice as well as the Chief Justice of the Judicial Branch for another six-year term. Clarence Boyd serves as the District I Appellate Justice, and Ramona Applegate serves as the District II Appellate Justice. Please stand and be recognized.

As prescribed by the Band Statutes, the Appellate Justices hear cases appealed from the District Court, in addition to Unlawful Detainer cases and Mille Lacs Band Election Disputes.

Honorable David Christensen, please stand to be recognized. Judge Christensen serves as the District Court Judge, presiding over family matters, truancy, child support, civil, criminal, domestic violence, and harassment matters.

Based on the Mille Lacs Band Justice System’s Strategic Plan, and the mutual agreement signed by the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branches, one of the primary goals was to coordinate an application for a United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Program grant application in early 2018. This grant was a three-branch collaborative effort to hire a team of statute revisors in the amount of $737,000. The Mille Lacs Band was successful in obtaining the grant award due to the coordinated efforts of the three branches.

As Judge Christensen recently said, “It is hard to capture what really is going on with the families in our family law cases due to the complex issues of addiction and co-dependency, especially with the heroin and meth affecting the community.” He is correct as agreed by the special magistrates. The opioid epidemic is a complex problem with many layers affecting the Band. Though the Band has made some strides to address this issue, we truly have no one single solution to resolve it. It will take many different avenues to address this rampant, dangerous drug.

One such avenue is the proposed development of a Mille Lacs Band Tribal Healing to Wellness Court. A Healing to Wellness Court is similar to what is known as a Drug Court, but with an additional critical inclusion of traditional and cultural elements. The Healing to Wellness Court will use a team approach, which will allow our departments and other service providers to collaborate and coordinate our healing efforts in a holistic manner to better assist addicted individuals. Instead of operating in isolation from each other, the team will meet together to discuss each case and braid together services. As we know, a braid is stronger than each of the individual strands alone. This will be a voluntary, confidential program to help those in the throes of addiction by providing long-term treatment but still holding the individual accountable through close monitoring, keeping them close to their family, and helping them become law-abiding, contributing community members again.

The Healing to Wellness Court will start with a pilot project, which will focus initially on Band members who are struggling with addiction and charged with criminal offenses, and are also the parents of Band member children who are the subjects of Child in Need of Protection or Services. Tribal Healing to Wellness courts have proven to have success in addressing the opioid epidemic. With the support of the Band Assembly and the Chief Executive, this Healing to Wellness Court will help advance the goals of the Mille Lacs Band Justice System Strategic Plan.

I want to stress that those who are addicted to mood-altering chemicals are not bad people. They are not weak because they cannot kick the habit. Rather, they are suffering from a disease, substance use disorder, which may be worsened by other issues such as mental illness or the effects of childhood trauma. We understand that people need help in treating the addiction and being supported in their journey of recovery. So, with that said, I would like to request a moment of silence in remembrance of those who have passed away due to addiction.

The Band has begun doing their part in holding individuals accountable for their actions on the reservation by filing criminal cases. These criminal cases are treated as civil misdemeanors and include violations such as theft, trespass, assault and battery, obstructing justice, resisting arrest, and traffic violations, to name a few. In total, 37 criminal cases were filed in 2018.

One area the courts see as a major problem in the community is the lack of services. Many departments are stretched too thin, resulting in inadequate services for our Band members. Staff shortages and overwhelming workloads in departments that provide direct services are apparent in many of our court hearings. The importance of adequate effective services is essential in helping our Band members. The departments who regularly appear in our court include the Department of Behavioral Health, Chemical Dependency, Mental Health, Family Services, Nay Ah Shing Schools, Guardians Ad Litem, Foster Care Licensors, Housing, Wraparound Program, Tribal Police, as well as the county social services.

In 2018, 11 truancy cases were closed due to improvement in school attendance. This was almost a repeat of 2017 in which 10 truancy cases were closed. The good news is that a majority of the cases were a result of the parents making more of an effort to get the children to school or improved communication between the families and the school. The assistance of Family Services transporting the children to school when they missed the bus helped to improved attendance as well.

In 2018, there were 25 cases filed for Children in need of Protective Services, which is two fewer than the year before. Over the past two years, guardianship has been granted for seven children, and 19 children were reunited with a parent or parents.

At the end of this month, the Tribal Court, Solicitor General’s office, and Family Services plan to attend a Title IV-E training to strengthen cooperation with the county regarding funding for out-of-home services for families and children. This training will enhance the understanding of all eligibility requirements to be in compliance and meet the Title IV-E funding.

The Judicial Branch would like to acknowledge the foster parents and guardians — grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, and others — who have stepped up to provide our children with a safe place to live and grow. We believe that all children need and deserve someone to take care of them. They need shelter, food, and clothes to wear, but they also need to know that they are loved and important as well. Miigwech for taking on this responsibility.

Unlawful detainer cases are primarily those individuals that fail to recertify with the Housing Department, non-payment of rent or work orders, or police raid due to drugs, guns, or crime. The Band usually makes many attempts to reconcile the matter before filing with the court.

The Mille Lacs Band Tribal Court recently underwent a court assessment, which was mandated by the Office of Justice Services, U.S. Department of the Interior Indian Affairs. The court assessment was conducted December 17-19, and recommendations are forthcoming. This assessment will allow the court a one-time funding request based on the results of the assessment. The recommendations will be shared with the stakeholders in the near future.

Several years ago, the Band developed a master plan to explore the needs of a tribal justice center, and this has been an ongoing discussion for numerous years. In 2018 it was determined that the existing District I Community Center will be renovated for a new Tribal Court building. Though it is not a Tribal Justice Center, the Tribal Court is in need of a new building to increase the number of courtrooms to two or three, which will better fit the needs of the community. The additional space will also make it possible to operate the Healing to Wellness Court program in a confidential manner. To assist in the renovation project, a renovation committee was established, and they will meet later this month with the architect and engineers. The committee will discuss programming the spatial needs of the building, visioning the layout of the courtrooms, technology, etc.

A site visit to Leech Lake Tribal Court later this month will serve a two-fold purpose: 1.) View their Tribal Court Justice Center building, which was built in 2016; 2.) Discuss their Healing to Wellness program.

In closing, if all three branches of the Band continue to move forward with the major improvements by advancing and expanding our infrastructure, we will reduce or eliminate the addiction crisis we are now facing. As strong Anishinaabe people and with the aid of our community members, we can win this battle.

Thank you for attending the State of the Band and listening to the State of the Judiciary.