- Associated Press - Sunday, July 30, 2017

STROUD, Okla. (AP) - In the 1980s, criminal cases occurring on Indian land left prosecutors questioning who had jurisdiction: Oklahoma, the tribe, or the federal government.

In 1985, the Sac and Fox Nation took a step ahead of other tribes and established its own police and court system. It is the oldest tribal court system in the state.

“We literally had to start from scratch,” said Truman Carter, founder and owner of the Indian Country Law Center. He helped the tribe create its legal system. The process took about six months, he said.

“It was involved,” he said. “It was the most comprehensive (legal code) of any tribe at the time. It still likely is today.”

The Journal Record (https://bit.ly/2uv5BVL ) reports that the work required Carter, the late Browning Pipestem, Bill Rice, and other legal practitioners to write code that criminalized certain activities and created punishments for them. It also required the tribe to establish the rules of evidence, court procedure, and appellate procedure.

In 1985, the Sac and Fox court system processed 45 cases. In 2016, the court handled 435 cases. Court administrator Charlotte Smith said the actual case count was more than 4,000, but that includes warrants and small matters.

With its 32-year history, the Sac and Fox court system has had an effect on other tribes as they set up their courts, said Kay Rhoads, Sac and Fox’s principal chief. She said the tribe’s code has been used by other tribes. Where the Sac and Fox Nation has its own cultural considerations in the code, other tribes insert their own cultural piece.

When the court system started, a tribal elder would sit in on the proceedings to make sure the cultural aspects were being upheld, Rhoads said.

She said she’s seen how the court system has become more legitimate; not only in legal practice but in how other people see it. Attorneys and judges must be approved by the bar association.

“People that practice here must be up on all three types of law - state, federal, and Sac and Fox,” she said. “It’s made our courts more stringent than other courts.”

The court sees many child abuse, paternity, and Indian child welfare cases. It also prosecutes crimes conducted on the Sac and Fox land, but only by Native Americans.

She said the court tries to put people with services it might need to get on the right track, such as parenting help or rehabilitation. Sac and Fox partners with other tribes that offer those services as well.

“(Our court system) takes a personal interest in people,” she said. “It’s not just pushing people through. We want to do whatever we can do to stabilize the family.”

But the court system loses some of its legal threat because of the cost to send people to jail, Rhoads said. The state’s criminal victimization program does not give money to the tribes. If the tribe has to pay incarceration fees, those add up quickly. It’s $48 per day for the tribe to house someone at the Lincoln County jail, which is the cheapest in the area, Rhoads said.

“(The incarceration cost) really hinders the police department and our courts,” she said. “The police are aware of our budget issues. The judges are aware of our budget. But at the same time, we have to enforce our laws.”

The tribe is looking into other revenue streams. It has a casino and some mineral rights.

While the tribe does what it can with its budget, Smith said she stays busy processing the cases. She’s worked at the justice center since 1992. She said she knew then that activity was going to increase. She said she’s seen how people have respected the court more through the years.

“The number of people that come to use us proves that they trust our services,” she said.

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