Editor's notes

By Chuck Armsbury, Senior Editor

I like it when the gods visit earth. They trek down that mountain of privilege into the valley of need. Sometimes they arrive by jet, put on their cowboy boots and go rural. Such a heavenly day happened in Eastern Washington recently, and hardly anyone called it a miracle.

Two of the most powerful gods, U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen Breyer, visited our region on July 18 for a trip without black robes into the world of Strong Heart Court. Miracle of miracles, these powerful judicial gods came to learn from a lowly judge on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

"They watched in Strong Heart Court as a team of 10 people decided the best way to help juvenile drug users," wrote Jim Camden of the Spokesman-Review. "They joined in the applause as teens battling alcohol or drug use were lauded for a week of clean drug tests or faithful attendance at counseling sessions. They heard the debates over whether to send teens with repeated failures or absences to detention or treatment centers."

Strong Heart Court is in Wellpinit, Washington on the Spokane Reservation, a small piece of land a few miles northwest of the city of Spokane, dry land where acclaimed poet Sherman Alexie was raised. The Spokane tribe started this unique court last March after receiving "the first payment in a three-year, $500,000 federal grant" that "uses a holistic approach reaching into the tribe's traditions of involving the entire community to help a member in trouble," according to Camden.

Spokane tribal leaders hope the visit will highlight their innovative concepts and make the point that tribal courts are separate but equal players in the nation's judicial system - atop which Justices O'Connor and Breyer sit. Strong Heart Court is an experiment designed to eventually replace an existing, failed system of standard detention, probation and treatment.

Tribal leaders called it Strong Heart Court because Wellness Court sounded too "New Age," and "Drug Court" sounded too negative. Breyer and O'Connor both came away with praise for the system, and so what is Spokane Tribal Court Associate Judge Conrad Pascal doing so interesting to attract these judicial gods?

The key to Strong Heart Court, apparently, is the large group of people who become part of a solution for the accused person's problems. "There are a significant number of people who are focused on 'What do we do with this person,'" Breyer said. "It's the right thing for this community."

Tribal members between 12 and 20 can be referred to the court for alcohol or drug abuse or for minor criminal offenses. During the yearlong program, an accused member must submit to three drug tests, go to two group therapy sessions, one individual session and Talking Circle each week. Talking Circle is a tribal concept that Judge Pascal introduced to the reservation's court system years ago when he was "running into a wall" with a particularly tough case.

Pascal told Justices O'Connor and Breyer that one, frustrating day in court he took off his robe, stepped away from the bench and joined the defendant and her family in the seats as "a friend who wants to help." Together, they then sat in a circle and passed around an eagle feather to keep discussion going. Eagle feathers are thought to hold special messages for the group and are sometimes given to defendants to help them through tough times.

It doesn't always work. "Timing is everything," said Judge Pascal. "The person has to be ready to listen, but not so far out of control that he or she can't be helped."

O'Connor, apparently having epiphanies, remarked to the Review that "the Talking Circle reminded her of things that were tried in some juvenile courts in the 1960s." I wonder if she means the reform principle tried in adult and juvenile courts in the 1960s that appears in this line from a Virginia Law Review article in June 1969 by Philip J. Hirschkop and Michael A. Milleman:

"The judiciary functions as more than a final arbiter; it has a responsibility for educating the public and, where it fails to act, it functions to legitimize the status quo."

This is what we all want to know: are the Supremes only legitimizing the status quo? Or was it something else that she experienced during the 1960's that had her reminiscing?

So off go our Supreme Court gods to new horizons of learning and educating about what systems must eventually replace the miserably failing U.S. drug war. To learn even more, these two judicial educators then flew off to the Navajo Reservation to continue their enlightenment. Who will educate the educators?

We will!