By Angel Ellis/Reporter
OKMULGEE, Oklahoma — MCN District courts will be expanding capacity in the wake of the SCOTUS decision reaffirming the tribe’s jurisdictional boundaries. MCN District Court Judge Greg Bigler has reported a significant increase in caseload over the past ten weeks.
The MCN Justice department according to MCN District Court Judge Greg Bigler closely watched the decision and for good reason. It had the potential to mean more cases for the tribe’s justice system.
“When we were waiting for that decision, we were nervous,” Bigler said. “The court was suspected to be closely decided, so when it came out, we were very excited that Gorsuch had written the opinion.”
Bigler said that Gorsuch was supportive when he was on the bench in Denver.
“When he was being appointed many Indian organizations were in support of Gorsuch’s appointment.”
The SCOTUS opinion was widely celebrated in Indigenous communities across the U.S.
“The decision was a very strong statement supportive of treaties,” Bigler said. “That is a positive for all Indian nations.”
Bigler said that this was one of the instances where you have to be careful what you wish for.
“It is a lot more work but we are very excited for it,” Bigler said. “From the first of the year up until the decision we had about 16 felony cases filed.”
“Since then we have had almost 240 total cases.”
Bigler said that some of these cases might include more than one charge in the case. For instance, if a person were accused of possessing a controlled substance and assault, those would be separate charges but included in the same case.
Bigler said that those are not all new cases; many of those have been shifted to tribal courts.
“It will continue to be more than what we use to see, but once they are processed there will be a taper off,” Bigler said. “We have these cases that being sent to our courts, and that falls a lot on the clerks.”
“We are going to need more clerks and we are trying to advertise and get those positions staffed. “
Bigler said that the courts are now in processing and have not gotten to the motions and jury stages of these processes. One of the needs of the courts will be to physically expand the court.
Bigler said there is a need of an increase in attorneys, clerks, prosecutors and space.
“We will need a new court building and that is something that has been in the master plan,” Bigler said. “It is moving very quickly to the top of the priority list.”
“Everyday now we have anywhere from 5 to ten arraignments and we are seeing an increase with protective orders.”
During this time ramped up of cases, the justice system is still having to deal with the health and safety issues associated with COVID-19.
He said that some of the ways that this is being handled, is to do as much remote hearings as possible.
“For our law enforcement, clerks, attorneys, and prosecutors to come down with COVID and need quarantine then all this could grind to a halt,” Bigler said. “We have had some cases that are reached by plea agreement so those have completed.”
“We will have health concerns for our jury pool, when the time comes.”
Bigler said that all levels of government are pushing out jury trials in order to protect the staff and public. He also said that the tribe is looking to find solutions to implement those hearings through the jail.
“We are looking at remote locations in various places that don’t place the public in danger,” Bigler said.
Bigler thinks that the important thing for everyone to remember is that the tribe has been around a long time and that the tribe once handled this duty.
“We have been around a very long time,” Bigler said. “We handled justice in the 1850’s, 60’s and 70’s, and we can do it again.”