Indigenous Law and Policy Center Collaborations Span Tribal, State, and Federal Courts
The MSU College of Law is home to the Indigenous Law and Policy Center. As the director, Matthew L.M. Fletcher heads up a program that trains law students to work with, and provide services within, Indian Country.
American Indian tribes have the right to self-govern. According to Fletcher, American Indian law routinely intersects with state and federal law and that makes it highly useful to have a working knowledge of indigenous law and its history. Even when a law student does not intend to practice in the area of indigenous law, knowledge acquired on the subject can provide further understanding about judicial practice.
In Michigan, there are twelve federally-recognized American Indian tribes and each has its own court system. Fletcher is a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, located in the northwestern section of Michigan's Lower Peninsula near Traverse City.
Fletcher works alongside Wenona T. Singel, the Center's associate director, associate professor of law, and member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians; and Kathryn E. Fort, an adjunct professor and staff attorney.
One of Fletcher's primary objectives is recruiting and retaining law students. MSU is among a small number of law schools in the country that offers the Indigenous Law Certificate Program. He acknowledges the challenge of competing for students, and spends considerable time and effort attracting high caliber and dedicated individuals and providing the tools that can help them succeed during law school. The program prepares students to practice indigenous law, address policy issues, represent Indian nations, and become familiar with the unique legal and governance systems for indigenous populations.
In addition to his Center responsibilities, Fletcher is immersed in legal activities that infuses community engagement into his work in the MSU College of Law. He is the Chief Justice of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Supreme Court in Alabama, and is an appellate judge for the Grand Traverse Band, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, Hoopa Valley Tribe, Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians, and the Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska.
Closing Policy Gaps through Scholarship and Advocacy
Under Fletcher's direction, the Center operates Turtle Talk, a law blog that is the leading electronic repository for free primary source documents relating to federal Indian law and American Indian tribal law. After posting Addressing the Epidemic of Domestic Violence in Indian Country by Restoring Tribal Sovereignty,1 an issue brief written for the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, Fletcher's work was seen by Bridget McCormack, a University of Michigan law professor at the time. McCormack, elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 2012, taught in the Michigan Clinical Law Program, a domestic violence clinic, and a pediatric advocacy clinic at the Law School.
Fletcher was addressing physical assault rates of American Indian women, and the inability of tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians who committed acts of domestic violence on Indian reservations. He, McCormack, and many others advocated national policy changes, and in 2013 President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA 2013). The legislation allows tribes to investigate, prosecute, convict, and sentence both Indians and non-Indians who assault Indian spouses or dating partners, including those who violate a protection order in Indian Country.
Michigan Tribal State Federal Judicial Forum
Another significant collaboration is Fletcher's work as a member of the Michigan Tribal State Federal Judicial Forum.
The Forum was established in 2014 and is composed of the chief tribal judge—or designated representative—from each of Michigan's twelve federally recognized tribes, twelve state court judges, and three federal representatives. Justice McCormack is the Michigan Supreme Court's liaison and member. The Forum is charged with eight key points, including "to foster mutual understanding, rapport, and acceptance by state, tribal and federal judges of the similarities and difference among each other's courts and legal systems."2
Earlier groundwork began in 1992 when former chief justice Michael F. Cavanaugh worked with tribal leaders to establish the Michigan Indian Tribal Court—State Trial Court Forum. State and tribal court judges came together to explore the overlapping issues facing their respective courts, and they worked to find common ground for resolving those issues. This set the groundwork for further collaboration, and in subsequent years the Michigan Indian Judicial Association was created, and a coalition of state and tribal partners worked toward the enactment of the Michigan Indian Family Preservation Act that reinforced the Indian Child Welfare Act. When that work was coming to a close, the current Forum was established. Fletcher was a founding member.
"Matthew Fletcher has been a valuable leader in the Supreme Court's efforts to encourage cooperation between our state, federal and tribal courts, serving as a member of the Forum since its inception and taking the lead on many projects. Matthew's insights, work ethic and commitment to forging collaborative relationships between sovereigns for the benefit of the people whose lives are deeply affected by our different courts are unique. Without his energy and leadership, we would not have achieved the success we have thus far," said Justice McCormack
Among their priorities for the Indigenous Law and Policy Center, Fletcher, Singel, and Fort work to enhance tribal governance nationally, assist courts in complying with the Indian Child Welfare Act, and make primary source documents freely available to tribal attorneys, federal and state government attorneys, and others. Community engagement and collaborative efforts are deeply embedded and contribute toward understanding indigenous laws, policies and scholarship that affect American Indians in Michigan and across the United States.
- Fletcher, M.L.M. (2009, March). Addressing the Epidemic of Domestic Violence in Indian Country by Restoring Tribal Sovereignty, (American Constitutional Society for Law and Policy Issue Brief). Retrieved from http://www.acslaw.org/files/Fletcher%20Issue%20Brief.pdfReturn to text
- Michigan Supreme Court. (n.d.). Michigan Tribal State Federal Judicial Forum Naakonigewin (Charter). Retrieved from http://courts.mi.gov/Courts/tribalCourts/Documents/TSF%20Judicial%20ForumNaakonigewinfinal.pdf#search='michigan tribal state federal judicial forum'Return to text