The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Court is the most visible expression of tribal sovereignty – the method by which the Tribe ultimately disposes of criminal activity and resolves civil disputes within its jurisdiction. The Tribal Court, which combines both traditional cultural and western methods of addressing these issues, is front and center in what may well be the greatest public safety crisis in the Tribe’s history. This crisis is threatening the social fabric and political integrity of the Tribe itself.
For decades, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Court has presided over criminal cases with one local attorney acting as a contract-judge and another local attorney acting as a contract prosecutor for the Tribe. The Tribe has implemented a major public safety initiative aimed at increasing the effectiveness of prosecution and adjudication in Tribal Court. The Tribe has established a new position of full-time in-house tribal prosecutor and filled that position with a licensed attorney with significant tribal experience. The Prosecutor, in concert with the recently established Tribal Office of General Counsel, has begun a major effort to re-write its criminal, traffic, juvenile/family, and domestic violence codes, with the goal of having those new codes in place within the next three months. (March 2011)
The Tribe has also reasserted its jurisdiction over juveniles—previously addressed by state prosecutors in state court. More aggressive prosecution in both criminal and juvenile matters has resulted in a need for an expanded court calendar to handle the increased caseload. As of February 2011, the former once-a-month court calendar has expanded to six days a month, and this is only a start. The Tribal Court operations are expected to continue to increase exponentially and are expected to quadruple within the next few months. This pattern is inevitable if the Tribe is to adequately address the public safety needs of its members.
The Tribe’s goal is to re-vamp and reinforce its criminal justice system such that criminal activity can be reduced and appropriately addressed in accordance with tribal tradition, custom, and community expectations. In addition to aggressive prosecution by a tribal employee, the Tribe anticipates the need to train and contract with lay spokespersons to represent defendants.