Judge at center of ICWA lawsuit in South Dakota stripped of title

Judge Jeff Davis of South Dakota. Photo from Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System

A South Dakota judge who is at the center of a landmark Indian Child Welfare Act lawsuit has been demoted.

Judge Jeff Davis was stripped of his title as presiding judge of the 7th Circuit last week. But he insists the move had nothing to do with the ICWA case, telling The Rapid City Journal that he was demoted as the result of a dispute with South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson, who issued the order.

"Ordinarily, I wouldn't have any comment, but the federal lawsuit involving children is too important to be dragged into this," Davis, who will remain on the bench, told the paper.

In a historic ruling in March, Judge Jeffrey L. Viken held that the state Department of Social Services and authorities in Pennington County -- including Davis -- have failed to comply with ICWA. He said they removed Indian children without providing due process to their families and their tribes.

"Indian children, parents and tribes deserve better," Viken wrote in his 45-page ruling.

Davis, for example, removed Indian children from their families in 100 percent of the cases before him. He's filed for a reconsideration of the decision, along with the other state defendants.

The team that won the lawsuit, from left to right: Carole Crazy Thunder-O’Rourke, Oglala Sioux Tribe Vice-Chairman Tom Poor Bear, ONTRAC Director Juanita Scherich, Valerie Janis, Lema Richards, ACLU attorney Stephan Pevar, William Chase and Rapid City attorney Dana Hanna. Photo by Richie Richards / Native Sun News

Native Americans represent nearly 9 percent of the state population. Yet 51 percent of children in the foster care system are American Indian or Alaska Native.

Many Indian children are removed at hearings in state court that last just as little as 60 seconds. Indian parents and guardians, along with the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, challenged these practices in their suit, Oglala Sioux Tribe v. Van Hunnik.

Justice Gilbertson named Craig Pfeifle as the new presiding judge.

Get the Story:
Judge: demotion over spat with SD Supremes, not Indian child welfare lawsuit (AP 5/23)
7th Circuit Court gets new judicial leadership (KOTA 5/21)

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