PABLO — The judges in the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Court don’t wear wigs, Chief Judge Brad Pluff told a group of African attorneys Thursday.
The lack of ceremonial headgear was just one difference between CSKT’s justice system and those of the delegates’ home countries. Another was courtroom etiquette.
“In most of our countries, if you are in the audience, you have to bow” upon entering and leaving, explained Lucia Masuka, national director of Zimbabwe’s Legal Resources Foundation.
“I think we should adopt that,” Pluff told his colleague, Associate Judge David Morigeau, with a grin.
But for most of their discussion in a tribal courtroom, the judges and their guests focused not on formalities, but substantive legal issues. The eight attorneys, who work for governments and legal nonprofits in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Liberia, Rwanda, South Africa, Nigeria and the Seychelles, came to Montana as part of a three-week, State Department-sponsored tour of the United States.
Entitled “the U.S. Penal System and Reform,” and supported by World Montana, it involved two days visiting police departments, prisons and courts in the state — including on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
Judges Pluff and Morigeau opened with a brief explanation of the reservation system and tribal court, which has jurisdiction over civil matters involving tribal members, and crimes with a maximum sentence of one year in prison or a $5,000 fine.
The Flathead’s overlay of tribal, state and federal jurisdiction reminded one of the guests, Saye Charles Guinkpa, of the situation he faces as director of Probation and Parole Services for Liberia’s Ministry of Justice. This West African nation was colonized by freed American slaves in the 19th century. Today, their descendants live alongside 16 other ethnic groups.
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“Liberia has a similar structure,” he told the judges. “We have a dual legal system. We have a customary side … the customary side is the traditional side, where the town chief or the quarter chief serves as the judge.”
But he said that these courts don’t hew as closely to Western procedural norms as CSKT’s does. “The courtroom is not arranged like this, and the rule of evidence is much more relaxed.”
That wasn’t the only difference he and the tribal court judges found. While the tribal court can impose a prison sentence up to one year, “we don't have prison sentences in the traditional system” in Liberia, Guinkpa explained. Instead, he said, an offender might be subjected to shaming in a public square, or even receive lashes.
“We don't do anything like what you're talking about,” Pluff said. “We do very little of what you're talking about, the shaming.”
The Tribal Court employees were up front about their own system’s shortcomings. “You say that you are appointed by the Tribal Council,” noted Claudine Dushimimana, senior prosecutor for Rwanda’s National Public Prosecution Authority. “It doesn't have any negative impact on the independence of the judges?”
Pluff chuckled. “We try to keep the separation of powers, (but) it's hard to do when the Tribal Council picks the judges, (and) the Tribal Council are the only ones that can remove the judges.”
“This council, I think, better than most councils across the state or on other reservations, for the most part stays out of what we do over here, but I'd be lying if I didn't say politics comes in to play. … That's always in the back of your mind.” Reagyn Germer, an attorney law clerk in Tribal Court, added that elected judges in non-tribal situations could also be swayed by political pressures.
At the end, the Legal Resources Foundation’s Masuka thanked them for the primer on Indian law. “We want to convey our gratitude for the time that you’ve given to us,” she said. “I’m sure we will go back to our countries and do more of (our own) research. The one idea for me is to try and influence our system as well.”