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Tribal Court priorities include new efforts

HOLLYWOOD — Seminole Tribal Court was affected by the pandemic like other branches of government. The system kept operating, but some meetings and hearings shifted online and others were postponed.

One of the biggest blows to the court and the tribe during the pandemic was when Chief Justice Willie Johns died of complications from diabetes Oct. 27 in Brighton. During a normal year, the system in place to find a replacement would move along more smoothly, but procedures have been more time consuming in the midst of Covid-19 protocols.

“It’s a painstaking process,” Stan Wolfe, Tribal Court’s director, said. “Filling the position this year would be nice.”

Amy Johns stepped in as the interim chief justice in the meantime and Wolfe said she has also shown interest in the chief justice position.

Wolfe said the way the system works is that the tribe’s judicial commission vets potential replacements and then submits suggestions to the chairman – currently Marcellus W. Osceola. The chairman then makes the appointment of the new chief justice.

ICWA, ‘healing-to-wellness’

Tribal Court consists of an appellate court and a trial court, which has broad civil jurisdiction to hear cases and controversies that end up before it. Managing Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) cases are one of its main responsibilities and the tribe has had a relationship with the 17th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida for several years – specifically its dependency division – to do that. Dependency cases include situations with children who are abused, abandoned or neglected and might be removed from parents. Outcomes can result in reunification with family members or adoption.

The court-to-court relationship began after Judge Jose Izquierdo – of the 17th Circuit – met then-Chief Justice Johns and Wolfe in 2016. There was a discussion about the hardships tribal families face in navigating court systems outside the tribe, and going before judges who aren’t familiar with Seminole culture or customs or ICWA provisions. The partnership resulted in the first tribal family adoption to be finalized at tribal headquarters in 2019. (Another tribal adoption had previously occurred in Izquierdo’s courtroom in downtown Fort Lauderdale).

While dependency cases are ultimately decided through the 17th Circuit, such cases could eventually be transferred exclusively to the tribe.

Wolfe said he’s hopeful that in-person hearings will return to tribal headquarters with Judge Izquierdo sometime in September after a pandemic pause. One of Wolfe’s long-term goals is to forge relationships like the one with Izquierdo in other counties in the state.

“My big dream is to make sure we have a office in all the three major reservations so tribal members wouldn’t have to come all the way down here for a hearing. We could have one in Big Cypress or Brighton,” Wolfe said.

Meanwhile, Wolfe and his staff have also been involved with a grant to develop a tribal “healing-to-wellness court.” The idea is to have substance abuse situations – whether alcohol or drug-related – be dealt with by the tribe instead of through state courts.

Wolfe, who is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said for such a system to work, tribal members need to be involved – including adults and youth who have experienced substance abuse issues.

“The healing-to-wellness system needs to be something different – something that’s really going to get those individuals who are involved in drugs and alcohol and substance abuse to respect and abide by,” Wolfe said. “And I think that’s going to come more from the traditional side. So if we can somehow develop it to where that system can work in conjunction with the court that’d be great. But I don’t see it as being just another court case.”

Wolfe is hopeful that a resolution on the healing-to-wellness court will appear before Tribal Council in the near future.

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