Part II of Billings Gazette Special Report on Tribal Sovereignty

From the Billings Gazette (Part I is here):

Three days a week, a dozen or so defendants in criminal cases appear before a Crow Tribal Court judge.

They could be charged with anything from a traffic violation to murder, and they could be there for a five-minute guilty plea or a weeklong trial. It’s all in the mix of a court schedule that begins at 8 a.m. and sometimes stretches into the evening.

Last year, the court handled 3,410 criminal cases, 335 civil cases, plus an intensive drug court and juvenile proceedings for a total of more than 4,200 cases, according to Associate Justice Julie Yarlott. During most of that year, the court was operating with just two judges. A second associate judge position is in the process of being filled.

The courthouse itself is slowly sinking into a muddy mire on the edge of Crow Agency, and it’s too small even for the understaffed court. Funding is always precarious.

But somehow it all gets done, and many say that thanks to Chief Judge Angela Russell, the court has reached new heights of fairness, stability and efficiency.

“With her law degree and her experience, it’s been a huge difference in what comes out of here,” said attorney Theresa Schneder, a court adviser who sometimes acts as a special judge on complex civil matters.

Sherry Scheel Matteucci, a former Montana U.S. attorney who works with the tribe, said Russell has made the court professional.

“Her presence has given that court a great deal of stability,” she said.

Every inch of Judge Russell exudes competence. Ask a question about the court or the law and she can supply the answer, always in a way a layman can understand.

“I never really had interest in working for the court before (former Chief Judge) Jim Yellowtail hired me in 2004,” she said.

But when Yellowtail left shortly after, Russell found herself chief judge and discovered that she liked it.

A new constitution adopted by the Crow in 2001 gave her the foundation to shape an independent and even-handed court. The 2001 Constitution institutionalized a three-part government with a separation of powers – of critical importance to a system that in the past had been considered subject to political influences.

Russell said current Chairman Carl Venne has never pressured the judges, and she is careful not to blur the lines between her role as chief judge and the policy-making roles of the executive and judicial branches.

Federal funds from the Bureau of Indian Affairs provide about 41 percent of total court costs, but most of the $726,000 budget comes from the tribal general fund, which will contribute more than $373,000 in fiscal 2008. In turn, the court returns a substantial amount to the general fund through collection of fines.

Along with ordinary court duties, the court has established a Healing and Wellness program – a drug court that diverts juveniles from the criminal system to a closely monitored recovery program. Yarlott handles most of the juveniles in the program.

“It’s busy and it’s productive,” she said. “I can actually help somebody.”