Codified by Cherokee Code Section 7, the Cherokee Courts make up the Judicial Branch of government, one of the three branches of government of the EBCI. The Court’s independence is specifically protected under the Code, which requires a 2/3 majority vote of Tribal Council to amend any judicial ordinance. Consisting of a trial court and an appellate court (Supreme Court), the Courts resolve approximately 1,400 criminal and civil matters each year that arise on trust property. Headed by a Chief Justice, two full-time Associate Judges, two Associate Appellate Justices, and numerous Temporary Judges/Justices, all of whom have been nominated by the Principal Chief and confirmed by the Tribal Council, the Court is among the leaders in tribal courts nationwide.
Over what and whom do the Cherokee Courts preside?
The Cherokee Courts hear criminal, civil, domestic violence (civil and criminal), small claims, juvenile, traffic, Family Safety (DSS), child support and drug court cases, with sessions nearly every day. Our clerk of court, who is also a graduate of an accredited law school and an EBCI member, presides over all estate matters, and our magistrates provide coverage 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Twenty-two full time employees, two grant employees (from 1 Family Services in Indian Country, LLC) and numerous part-time contract employees make up one of the most advanced tribal court systems in the country. In keeping with that idea, our Probation department consists entirely of officers with basic law enforcement training (BLET) and has full law enforcement arrest powers; and our Drug Court follows the Kentucky model approved and used by much of the country. The Courts are housed in the new EBCI Justice Center, along with the Cherokee Police Department and Cherokee Detention Facility.
In short, through great effort, we at the Cherokee Courts have succeeded in making our system fully functional and have established ourselves as leaders among Indian Country court systems.
Notable aspects and accomplishments of the Cherokee Court
The Court is proud to note that current or retired State Trial or Appellate Court judges fill all three of the temporary positions and one of the Associate Justice positions, allowing the Courts to resolve conflicts in either the Trial Court or the Supreme Court. Three out of four of the other judges in the Cherokee Courts are members of the EBCI.
The Court is also the only tribal court in the country to host Federal Central Violations Bureau (CVB) Court quarterly and will eventually house a satellite federal probation office. The North Carolina State Bar Association must license all attorneys and judges practicing within the Cherokee Courts, and each defendant is afforded the right to a court-appointed attorney and all rights available in any other court in the country. Jury trials, with a jury pool containing non-Indians, are available for every criminal or civil matter.
The Cherokee Courts are one of only a handful of tribal courts to institute both the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) enhanced sentencing and the Violence Against Women Act of 2013 (VAWA) allowing prosecution of non-Indians for certain domestic violence (DV) crimes. TLOA allows the Court to hand down sentences of up to three years for individual charges and up to nine years in combination, while VAWA gives the Court jurisdiction to hear DV crimes between intimate partners when the victim is a Tribal member residing on trust property and the defendant is non-Indian.