Judge Manuel Watchman’s courtroom was filled to capacity the morning of April 6. Prosecutor Jimmie Dougi stood ready behind the bar. The only players missing were the defendants.
The Tuba City District Court celebrated an open house for community outreach and a better understanding of the tribal court system. School buses lined up in the parking lot as children filled the halls of justice.
The courtroom over which Watchman presides handles adult cases, he told children. “One day you will grow up, and I just hope that you don’t pay a visit here as one of the defendants. There are ways to prevent that.” These include, Watchman said, listening to parents and teachers, and learning to obey laws and rules.
The judge explained the layout of the courtroom and the types of proceedings held there. For example, a bench trial is heard and decided by the judge alone; a jury trial places that responsibility in the hands six people. The defendant has the right to choose either one.
The platitude “justice is blind” comes to mind as Watchman explained that when the court hears a case, it doesn’t look at the specifics of the person standing before the bench. “The court is all ears.” The defendant, his attorney and the prosecutor and any other participant must imprint in the minds of the court and the judge exactly what took place, Watchman explained.
From the testimony, the court constructs findings of fact. The next step is the application of law. Finally, there is the sentencing phase. All of this must be done fairly, without prejudice. “Sometimes you hear people say, ‘oh the Judge knew that person, or the prosecutor knows that one,’ but any decision that we make is subject to the appeal of the Supreme Court of the Navajo Nation. The findings of fact, application of law and judgment-all will be reviewed there, so there is no way a judge can make an arbitrary decision. That is why the system is in place; to ensure that justice and fairness is administered.”
Dougi encouraged children to stay out of the system. His viewpoints have been honed from seeing too many youth head down the wrong path, many never to return. Gentle with the younger guests, older children were challenged bluntly—drug and alcohol abuse, gang involvement, and other illegal activities lead to dire consequences. Peer pressure can be destructive.
“Don’t let others make the decision for you. Statistics indicate that some of you here will not make it to your 30th birthdays!
“If you abuse alcohol or drugs, if you hurt someone at school, if you don’t listen to your teacher or you skip class, you will appear here. Perhaps his next comment was directed to a few young people who chose that moment to smile. “It is not funny when you are here with your parents, when they have to pay a lawyer just to defend you, when they have to pay your fines or restitution. You become the robber of your family because you deprive your brothers and sisters, your mother and father, of the necessities they must pay for.”
There were positive messages as well. “You are all very special to us! Respect your family and one another. Respect your teacher—who holds the knowledge to your future. Tell this to one another,” Dougi said. Watchman and Dougi also encouraged the young people to trust the police, who are there to help and protect the community.
When asked how many children wanted to grow up to become lawyers, judges, prosecutors or policemen, the show of hands was amazing. “If you want to be one of those, you have to listen to your teachers, you have to obey the rules. You must go to school every day. You’ll do a lot of reading,” Watchman said. The children began to add their own rules to the list. “Do all of your homework!” “No smoking!” Don’t drink!”
As a final note, Dougi stepped to the door located to his left and opened it. The sunshine that poured through was deceiving. “When you go through this door, you are going to jail. You will wear an orange jumpsuit and have to stay in a small room. You’ll be told when to sleep, when to get up and when and what to eat.” And that, Dougi would affirm, is no picnic.
Traditional knowledge an alternative to court
Ramona June Watchman serves as the Peacemaker Liaison for Tuba City Judicial District—helping to provide a comfortable forum for dispute resolution through the use of peacemakers. “Traditional values and the laws of nature are used a lot here,” Watchman said.