The Ute Tribe on Wednesdy transferred supervision of its judicial system to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in what a tribal attorney called a "high road" attempt to settle the political dust on the eastern Utah reservation.
But leaders of a group of tribal dissidents charge the move was a political shot at them and an attempt to guard tribal leaders and their attorney from punitive action that was to be taken in tribal court Thursday.Tribal members on the Uintah Basin reservation are involved in a recall election effort to oust five of six members of the tribe's ruling Business Committee and have levied charges of court tampering against the committee.
Meanwhile, Business Committee members have charged their court system, which is not an independent branch of government, with political posturing and failure to provide due process.
To clear up harsh feelings on the reservation the month before elections are held, attorney Stephen Boyden said the tribe transferred supervision of the court to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, effective Wednesday.
The move comes nearly two months after a public meeting during which more than 100 of the tribe's 2,000 members, in a constitutionally questionable procedure, voted the Business Committee out of office, charging court tampering, among other things.
"Under the constitution of the tribe, the Business Committee is the head of a monolithic system of government where there are no branches of government and where the committee has supervisory powers over the courts," Boyden said.
"That puts the Business Committee in a real dilemma because after that public meeting, any attempt on their part to take corrective action with the courts would be viewed as political," he said.
So, under an agreement with the BIA and the U.S. Department of Justice, the tribe simply removed itself from supervisory control of its judiciary.
Boyden said the Ute's court system, established under the Ute Tribe Law and Order Code in 1975 has fallen into disrepair and its judges lack sufficient judicial experience.
"One of the big problems is the total dysfunction of the appellate system and the fact that there have been a number of pending cases that have never been heard," Boyden said.
Court records are often misplaced and defendants are often brought to trial without having complaints filed against them and without knowing what their charges are, he said.
Additionally, politics are impeding justice because the tribe's chief Judge, Norma Jean Gray, is a member of the opposition movement attempting to unseat the Business Committee and was the one who moved to oust the committee in the meeting two months ago, Boyd said.
"Those are serious problems for any court," he said.
But leaders of Concerned Tribal Members, who want the Business Committee replaced, say the move to transfer power of the court to the BIA was political and may even be illegal.
`It's a political move," said Larry Cespooch, one of the group's leaders. "Today was the day the courts were to have a number of cases heard involving the Business Committee," he said, explaining the committee was to face charges of intimidation and bribery for interfering with a petition drive in the recall process.
Additionally, Boyden was to appear before the court on a contempt of court charge for interfering with a tribal court order, Cespooch said.
But Boyden said neither he nor the Business Committee received a complaint in the charges, pointing to these instances as examples of a lack of due process on the reservation.
The court system remains intact, although the court calendar has been suspended and whether judges will remain seated will be up to the BIA, Boyden said.
"Criminals don't need to think there is no court system because there is and law enforcement will go on," Boyden said.
"We haven't changed players and we haven't changed rules. It's just that now, someone else has to worry about how the rules are followed," he said.