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Tribal court may rule on forest management

published Dec. 17, 2003

The planned court's docket may include fish and game issues


The Klamath Tribes plan to soon add the missing branch to their governmental tree - a judicial system.

A Klamath tribal court should start hearing cases next spring, and may eventually play a role in management of forestlands if the Tribes are successful in regaining control of their former reservation.

The court would hear appeals of forest management decisions by the Tribes, said Shayleen Idrogo, the Klamath Tribes attorney.

But there is a lot of work to do before the court could hear such cases.

"We want to build a good foundation for it," Idrogo said.

The court will start as a once-a-week family court, with a judge hearing cases about child abuse, neglect and other domestic issues. The court will hear its first cases in the auditorium of the Tribes administration building in Chiloquin.

Eventually, the court will expand its docket to more than family matters, including fish and game issues brought by tribal members of the public.

"So if someone wants to get involved in our land management plan, this is how they can," Idrogo said.

While family court cases will be appealed to a Tribal Supreme Court - made up of three tribal judges from other tribes - cases concerning resources and management will be appealed to the federal district court, Idrogo said.

Allen Foreman, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, said this is a unique situation that the Tribes agreed to as demonstration of how they want the public to be involved with the management of the forests.

He said the Tribes will be waiving part of their sovereign immunity in allowing the appeals to the federal district court. This will make them accountable to the general public, as well as the Tribes members, he said.

"If we deviate from our plans and do something outrageous, they can take it to our (federal) court system," Foreman said. "We are trying to show that we believe in a system of fairness and balance."

But there are limits to what can be appealed, as stated in dispute resolution guidelines released with the Tribes' forest management plan Tuesday.

"Grounds for appeal to the federal district court will be limited to whether due process was accorded in the tribal forums and whether the proposed tribal action is in violation of the principles of management contained in the legislation transferring the land to the Tribes or contrary to the Tribal Forest Management Plan," the guidelines state.

Dave Groff, Klamath County chief deputy district attorney, said the office and the Klamath County Sheriff's office have been in communication with the Tribes about the court.

Because the court will first only hear family cases, he said it's not clear immediately that there will be an impact on criminal cases.

Although the Tribes are starting a judicial branch, they won't have a law enforcement division or a jail, so arrests in criminal cases would remain the responsibility of county or state officials.

Idrogo said there are six members on the planning committee for the court.

In September, the Tribes got a federal grant for $99,809 from the U.S. Department of Justice to set up the court.

The Tribes are looking for someone to serve as judge. Qualifications include Native American ethnicity, 30 years old or older, and a law degree or experience as a judge at another court.

Reporter Dylan Darling covers natural resources. He can be reached at 885-4471, (800) 275-0982, or by e-mail at ddarling@heraldandnews.com.

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