Into a New Era: Joint Tribal-State Jurisdiction and the Path to Healing

Judge Korey Wahwassuck

Intergovernmental and interagency collaboration are necessary to break the cycle of drug and alcohol dependence, and reduce the number of children in out-of-home placement. In 2010, the National CASA Association Judges’ Page featured an article about the first joint tribal-state jurisdiction courts in the nation1, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe-Ninth Judicial District-Cass and Itasca County Wellness Courts.2 After nearly a decade, these groundbreaking problem-solving courts are still operating successfully, having become a national model for intergovernmental collaboration.3 The success of Minnesota’s joint jurisdiction courts proves that significant impacts are possible at the local level. “By working together to tackle problems – like addiction, domestic violence, and child neglect – practitioners who bridge the state-tribal divide increase government efficiency, promote justice, and increase the likelihood that the justice system will produce significant beneficial outcomes for victims, offenders, justice agencies, and the community as a whole.” 4

The Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ)5 found that tribal-state collaboration contributes to improvement of the process and outcomes of child protection cases involving Indian children.6 In 2011, the CCJ passed a resolution encouraging state court judges who hear child protection and adoption cases to communicate and collaborate with their tribal court counterparts.7 But achieving this goal can be difficult. The Indian Child Welfare Act8 is a complex law that is misunderstood by many state court practitioners, who often receive insufficient training and generally do not have procedures in place to ensure

State courts and tribal courts strive for the same things, albeit using different approaches. Both want fewer children in out-of-home placement, reduced recidivism rates and disproportionate minority contact, and solutions to the ravages of addiction. But try as they might, both systems struggle to achieve these goals. In times of shrinking resources and having to do more with less, the systems can, and should, work together and learn from each other. But systems don’t collaborate; people do. We are the system, and if we are to achieve the healing so desperately needed in our communities, we must come together.

The joint tribal-state jurisdiction courts that began in Minnesota are being replicated elsewhere, with the same positive results.10  While creating tribal-state collaborations may seem daunting, assistance is available for those wanting to learn11, and for those ready to create their own collaborations.12 Together, we can usher in a new era of healing, using Joint Tribal-State Jurisdiction as the vehicle for lasting change. Carolyn Yoder said that “[c]hange begins with me, with you, with us.”13 Ask yourself this: “Do I know about the other court systems in my jurisdiction? Could I pick up the phone and call the tribal judge (or state judge) if needed to?” If the answer is “no”, then do something about it. Now is the time to proactively address the root causes of family dysfunction and addiction, not just react to the symptoms. If we are willing to work together for change, healing is possible. So, in the words of Sitting Bull, “[l]et us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”14


1 See, Hon. Korey Wahwassuck, “Joint Tribal-State Jurisdiction in Family Dependency Cases: A New Model for Better Outcomes” Judges’ Page, July 2010

2 See, Korey Wahwassuck, “The New Face of Justice: Joint Tribal-State Jurisdiction,” 47 Washburn L.J. 733 (2008); See, also, Korey Wahwassuck, John P. Smith, and John R. Hawkinson, “Building a Legacy of Hope: Perspectives on Joint Tribal-State Jurisdiction,” 36 W. Mitchell L.R. 2, (2010)

3 See, Christine Folsom-Smith, Walking on Common Ground: Tribal-State-Federal System Relationships, at p. 14 (A Publication of the National Tribal Judicial Center, National Judicial College); See, also, “State and Tribal Courts: Strategies for Bridging the Divide,” (A Publication of the Center for Court Innovation, 2011). See, also, “Promising Strategies: Tribal-State Court Relations,” (A Publication of the Tribal Law and Policy Institute and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice, March 2013); See, also, “A Circle of Healing for Native Children Endangered by Drugs.” Office for Victims of Crime, video training series (2014)

4 Christine Folsom-Smith, Footnote 3, at p. 21

5 See, The Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) was founded in 1949 to provide an opportunity for the highest judicial officers of the states to meet and discuss matters of importance in improving the administration of justice, rules and methods of procedure, and the organization and operation of state courts and judicial systems, and to make recommendations and bring about improvements on such matters

6 See, Conference of Chief Justices Resolution 27, To Continue the Improved Operating Relations Among Tribal, State, and Federal Judicial Systems(August 1, 2012)

7 See, Conference of Chief Justices Resolution 5, To Encourage Greater Collaboration Between State Courts and Tribal Courts to Protect Native American Children, (January 26, 2011)

8 25 U.S.C.A. §§ 1901 et. seq.

9 See, Donna Goldsmith and Hon. Korey Wahwassuck, “Overrepresentation of Indian Children in State Child Protection Systems is Not in Their Best Interest,” The Judges’ Page (July 2009)

10 See,link.

11 See, National Criminal Justice Association State and Tribal Collaboration Webinar Series; See, also, Walking on Common Ground, Resources for Promoting and Facilitating Tribal-State-Federal Collaboration website, at . See, also, Center for Court Innovation website

12 See, Project T.E.A.M. website

13 See, Carolyn Yoder, The Little Book of Trauma Healing, Good Books (2005) at p. 7.

14 Sitting Bull (c. 1831 – 1890), Hunkpapa Lakota Medicine Man and Chief


About the Author
Judge Korey Wahwassuck
was a founding member of the joint jurisdiction courts in Cass and Itasca County, Minnesota. She served as a tribal court judge for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Tribal Court from 2006 until 2013 when she was appointed by Governor Mark Dayton to serve as a Minnesota District Court Judge for the Ninth Judicial District. Previously Judge Wahwassuck served as a Kansas Supreme Court Certified Mediator (Core, Domestic, and Parent/Adolescent), and practiced law for 15 years, specializing in Indian law, child welfare, and juvenile delinquency. Judge Wahwassuck earned her bachelor's degree and JD from the University of MissouriColumbia. She has taught courses on Native American Spirituality and Sovereignty, Treaty Rights and Tribal Sovereignty, Tribal Court-State Issues, and Juvenile Delinquency Guidelines at Penn Valley Community College in Kansas City, Missouri, Leech Lake Tribal College, the National Judicial College, and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Judge Wahwassuck serves on the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges’ Tribal Leadership Forum, and previously served on the NCJFCJ’s Tribal Court Committee and as an Advisory Member of NCJFCJ Diversity Committee. Judge Wahwassuck served as a member of the Minnesota Supreme Court's Drug Court Initiative Advisory Committee and Minnesota Supreme Court’s Racial Fairness Committees, and currently serves on the Safe Harbor Statewide Model Protocol Judges Work Group, the Committee for Equality and Justice, and Chairs the Ninth District Equal Justice Committee. Judge Wahwassuck also served as a member of the Board of Directors for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, and was a member of Tribal Advisory Committee to the Indian Law and Order Commission. She authored “The New Face of Justice: Joint TribalState Jurisdiction” for the Washburn Law Journal and “Building a Legacy of Hope: Perspectives on Joint Tribal-State Jurisdiction” for the William Mitchell Law Review.

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