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Amy Johns has new title, familiar role

It would be hard to find someone with more knowledge about the workings of Seminole Tribal Court than Brighton’s Amy Johns. Johns was there from its inception in 2015 when she was installed as an associate justice. She continued in the position before things began to change during the first year of the pandemic in 2020.

In October 2020, the tribe suffered a blow when Willie Johns, a Tribal Court chief justice of the appellate court, died of
complications from diabetes at 69. His death left a vacancy on the court’s bench that would need to be filled. Johns agreed to step into the role of interim chief justice while a permanent replacement was found.

Tribal Council eventually decided the best person to fill the vacancy was Johns herself, and appointed her as chief justice of the tribe’s appellate court at its regular meeting that was held online Nov. 19, 2021.

“I was always interested in the creation and implementation of the Tribal Court,” Johns said. “I’m very invested and
committed to the tribe.”

Johns joined Associate Justice Moses Jumper Jr. on the appellate court, which now has a vacancy for a second associate justice. The second judicial branch – the trial court – consists of Chief Judge Moses B. Osceola, Associate Judge Tina Osceola and Associate Judge Mary Tigertail. Both courts have broad jurisdiction over civil cases within the tribe.

Chief Justice Amy Johns (Via STOF)

Family, education

Johns was born in Clewiston and raised in Brighton. Her parents are Patty Johns Waldron, who is the health information management administrator at the Brighton health clinic, and Bruce Waldron, a retired teacher. Johns is an only child with two children of her own. Willie Johns was her cousin, but she said she called him her uncle.

Johns left Florida at 17 after graduating from Okeechobee High School to attend Arizona State University in Tempe. She earned degrees in social work and public administration at ASU and then went on to earn her law degree from the University of Montana in Missoula before eventually returning to the tribe.

She was previously enrolled in an advanced Indian law program at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma as well – which she’d put on hold to attend law school. Johns said she’s now finishing the final semester of the program. The focus of her thesis involves child support issues in Indian Country.

Concerns, collaborations

Like many across Indian Country, Johns is keeping an eye on the U.S. Supreme Court and whether it will eventually hear a case that challenges the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

“If the Supreme Court reaffirms ICWA, that would be a positive,” she said. “Its guidelines have been improved to help
people understand it.”

Johns is also focused on the potential of the tribe instituting a “healing to wellness” court – a way to work with those who have non-criminal substance abuse issues that would be dealt with through the tribe instead of outside courts. Johns would also like to see more collaboration with outside court systems – like the one in place now with the 17th Judicial Circuit Court, specifically the dependency division of its Unified Family Court, located in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

Dependency cases involve anything related to children who are abused, abandoned or neglected. They might be removed from parents for those reasons. Outcomes can result in several scenarios, including reunification with family members or adoption.

Right now, such dependency cases for those living in Hollywood are ultimately decided through the 17th Circuit. Similar collaborations could be set up for tribal members living outside Hollywood.

“The hope is to eventually take those cases on completely by ourselves,” Johns said. The scenario is one of the goals of the ICWA statute.

Johns said she wants tribal members to know that Tribal Court is up and running as the pandemic continues. She said she and her colleagues have been juggling a large number of guardianship cases and that dockets are becoming “thicker and thicker.”

“We are here; we are open,” Johns said. “We’re a source that’s here for you.”

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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