Klamath Tribes working to complete a new courthouse and expand judiciary powers

While tribes such as the Cherokee or Navajo have robust judicial systems capable of adjudicating a wide variety of cases – though the Federal Government prosecutes major, felony cases – the Klamath Tribes is making strides in expanding its own judicial capacities. The Klamath Tribes is expanding its law codes and working on constructing a new Tribal Courthouse.

The Tribal Courthouse is located at 35601 South Chiloquin Road in Chiloquin, across from the Klamath Tribes Culture and Heritage Community Center on Highway 62. The building was formerly a church, and the building and land were purchased with CARES funds – a stimulus package designed to stimulate the economy during COVID-19. With the subsequent round of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, the application to renovate the tribal court was successful, obtaining approval from the tribal legal team and tribal council.

“It’s scheduled to be completed in April,” said Jared Hall, Klamath Tribes Planning Director. “And so, hopefully, the tribal court team will be moving back in May.”

“The general contractor had several projects they were in the middle of and closing out,” he continued, explaining just one of the many obstacles in securing the building’s renovation from start to finish. “So, we had limited crews over there doing stuff, but they’re starting to get more bodies over there, and they can make some more progress.”

While the physical manifestations of establishing a judiciary – building a courthouse – are generally straightforward, understanding the course that brought the Tribes to this point is less clear.

Chiloquin has a reputation for having been a lawless place in the past – a point not lost on some residents born here decades ago. “And so, folks stepped in and said that the federal government needed to take responsibility for major crimes,” said Klamath Tribes’ Chairman Clayton Dumont, providing a brief background of judicial power being stripped away from the Tribes. “Of course, then that would get farmed out to regular law enforcement, but not tribal law enforcement.”

He elaborated on the reasoning for strengthening and expanding the Tribes’ own judiciary in the present. With a public safety department now recognized by the State of Oregon and freshly sworn-in officers, the contours of this reality are beginning to take shape.

“I think we’ve always had a desire to put those institutions back in place that we lost,” said Dumont. “We had a tribal police force for a long time before Termination. We’ve had a fish and game officer – he was not armed. We’ve never had the capacity to enforce State law before, which these officers now will be able to do. The impetus for this has also been for families and kids specifically, trying to get our kids out of the system, wanting to have a court that was situated in the community and that understood how to help kids that are getting into trouble as opposed to going into the outside system, and end up going in wrong directions.”

Dumont also addressed the McGirt decision, a landmark Supreme Court case establishing tribes in Oklahoma have jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed on their lands, whether by tribal members or non-tribal individuals. Although in one setback, stemming from a June 2022 Supreme Court ruling, the state of Oklahoma can seek to prosecute non-tribal citizens who are accused of committing crimes against tribal citizens on reservations.

“I have always thought it was absurd that tribal members from other tribes were subjected to tribal laws on the other side of the country,” Dumont said. “So, if I were in Oklahoma, and I was in their jurisdiction, and I violated a law, I would be subject to their judicial system, but a non-tribal from here wouldn’t.”

But Dumont does express optimism for the Klamath Tribes Judiciary in the long term.

“Right now, I’m happy that we’re going to have our own law enforcement people who will be able to enforce State law and tribal law. And the fact that our courts are taking care of our kids; that they’re able, for example, to collect child support, attach wages, that’s huge.”