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Rocky Boy council replaces chief tribal judge

The chief tribal judge of the Chippewa Cree Tribe has resigned in the wake of an election he said was flawed.

Gilbert Belgarde said he accepted an offer of a buyout on the rest of his term from the tribal council. Under changes to the tribal constitution approved recently by voters, the tribal council can now appoint tribal judge, who formerly were elected.

"I couldn't serve two masters," Belgarde said. "I couldn't serve the people and I couldn't serve the business committee (tribal council) at the same time. So I had to go."

Ken Gardipee, one of the tribe's two associate judges, also resigned. He received an offer of a buyout on Tuesday, court officials said. Gardipee has an unlisted telephone number and could not be reached for comment today.

Enos Johnson, the other associate judge, said Tuesday he has no intention of resigning.

Court administrator Duane Gopher has been appointed acting chief judge by the tribal council until a permanent appointment is made.

Belgarde said Tuesday that he was offered a buyout by the tribal council by phone on Friday afternoon. The conversation was "amicable" and he thought the settlement, which he would not disclose, was fair, he said.

Belgarde added that he did not know if the tribal council would have allowed him to keep his job until November if he had wanted to.

Belgarde had previously said he might request a buyout for the remaining months of his term if the results of the Jan. 6 secretarial election were upheld. The regional office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the results on Feb. 10.

In the election, voters approved several changes to the tribe's constitution and bylaws, including an amendment that would make tribal judges appointed rather than elected. Belgarde had said the amendment would upset the balance of power in tribal government and could threaten his job.

In an unsolicited legal opinion submitted to the BIA in January, Belgarde wrote that the election had been administered improperly. He said eligible voters should have been notified by registered mail of the election, and that the 161 people who voted were not representative of about 5,000 tribal members living on and off the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.

The Jan. 6 election asked enrolled voters of the Chippewa Cree Tribe to approve four other changes to the tribe's 1935 constitution and bylaws. Voters approved measures to increase criminal misdemeanor penalties, change the date of primary elections, prohibit convicted felons from seeking office, and delete a constitutional provision that revoked tribal membership if members who lived outside the reservation did not return every 10 years to renew it.

Tribal chair Alvin Windy Boy Sr. and vice chair Bruce Sunchild did not return calls seeking comment this morning. Tribal council members have said they wanted to appoint the judges so they could fill the office with better-qualified people.

Gopher said he would be interested in taking the job permanently if "the money is right."

Gopher received a law degree from Northwestern School of Law at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., in 2002. He plans to take his bar examination in July, he said. Belgarde does not have a law degree.

Gopher said Tuesday that while he is serving as chief judge he wants to improve the efficiency of the court.

"Everything is handwritten and we've had a problem with files being lost or misplaced, and we need to just develop a better way of tracking our documents," he said.

Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, 10 computers arrived two weeks ago and are now being installed in the court, he said. They will be used for word processing, and for a database to track youth in the tribal youth program. The program refers youth offenders on the reservation to different tribal resources like chemical dependency, social services and school counselors rather than sending them to jail.

He also said people will no longer be able to use property bonds to get bailed out of jail. In the past, he said, people would give the department worthless property - like TV sets that didn't work - as bail and then never show up for their arraignment.

"We have several rooms full of junk that no one's going to come back and claim," Gopher said, adding that the system has been abused since the late 1980s. Only cash will be accepted as bond from now on, he said.

Belgarde said he is interested in teaching at Stone Child College if a position comes open.

Belgarde's term as chief judge was set to expire in November. He said he is still interested in running for a seat on the tribal council in that election.

For now, Belgarde said he might take a vacation, perhaps to Las Vegas.

"Right now I want to be free of things and clear my mind," he said.


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