South Dakota court rebukes judge at center of ICWA dispute

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

A controversial judge who is at the center of a landmark Indian Child Welfare Act lawsuit has once again been rebuked by the South Dakota Supreme Court.

In 2009, Judge Jeff Davis barred all residents of Oglala Lakota County, formerly known as Shannon County, from serving on juries. He also ordered all cases originating in Oglala Lakota County to be heard in Fall River County because Oglala Lakota County lacks physical state court facilities.

The order essentially deprived members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of one of their basic rights, the state's top court determined. As plaintiffs or defendants, tribal members would not be allowed to present their cases to juries of their peers.

"The circuit court’s ruling, effectively prohibiting the entire population of a South Dakota county from participating in their civic right to be a juror, is a structural defect we cannot allow," Chief Justice David Gilbertson wrote in the November 4 decision.

The team that won the Indian Child Welfare Act 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

The ruling marks the second clash between Gilbertson and Davis. In May, Gilbertson stripped Davis of his title as as presiding judge of the 7th Circuit, an effective demotion.

The action came after a federal judge found that Davis was violating the due process rights of Indian parents and guardians. Davis allowed the state to remove Indian children from their families in 100 percent of his cases in the 7th Circuit.

"Indian children, parents and tribes deserve better," Judge Jeffrey L. Viken wrote in the historic 45-page ruling.

At the time, Davis insisted his demotion was not tied to his handling of Indian matters, instead blaming it on an administrative dispute with Gilbertson. Davis remains on the bench in South Dakota and is seeking a reconsideration of Viken's decision.

Campaign stickers advocated for the name change. Photo by Neeta Lind / Flickr

The South Dakota Supreme Court's November 4 ruling came after an Oglala Sioux tribal member wanted a jury from Oglala Lakota County to hear her negligence lawsuit. Under the now-invalidated order issued by Davis, only residents of Fall River County would have been summoned.

The difference is significant. Native Americans represent 92 percent of the population in Oglala Lakota County versus 7 percent in Fall River County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Vera Good Lance, the plaintiff in the lawsuit, passed away before her case could be resolved. But if it goes to trial, a jury from Oglala Lakota County will be summoned.

Good Lance's estate administrator continues to pursue the case, which accuses a dialysis center of negligence for a fall suffered at the facility.

Get the Story:
SD Supreme Courts Opens Jury Pools To Oglala Lakota County Residents (AP 11/10)

South Dakota Supreme Court Decision:
Good Lance v. Black Hills Dialysis (November 4, 2015)

Related Stories
Judge at center of ICWA lawsuit in South Dakota stripped of title (5/25)

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