Judicial honor Judge Connors receives Hilda Gage Award

By Cynthia Price

Legal News

The prestigious Hilda Gage Judicial Excellence Award is the latest in a long line of honors given to Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Connors, but the judge insists that what is important is the work done on behalf of peacemaking and restorative principles, and of the Michigan Indian community. He takes very little credit for progress on that work, but heaps praise on those around him. "I'm just a cog in the wheel," he says.

Noting he is "100 percent Irish," he says he got involved with tribal issues because it stood out as the right thing to do. "We have as much to learn, if not more, from the Indian tribes than vice versa," he says. "I choose to call myself an ally."

"A very well-known ally," comments the judge's intern, John Petoskey, who comes from a long line of tribal leaders in Michigan. "It's good to have someone drawing attention to the tribes so consistently over so many years."

A Washtenaw County Trial Court judge since 1991 and chief judge for over a decade, Connors has also served as the appointed Judge Pro Tem for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. His energetic and long-term work on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), in concert with a large number of collaborators from tribes and agencies, stems from his respect for Native American principles and his deeply felt desire to serve children."ICWA should be the gold standard for all of our children," he says.

When the Hilda Gage Judicial Excellence Award was given at the end of October, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack commented, "Judge Connors has led groundbreaking efforts to strengthen the juvenile court in Washtenaw County and he has been an instrumental collaborator in developing strong state-tribal court relations. His impact on child welfare cases transcends the systemic reform efforts he has undertaken. He carefully listens to each family's story...the community's respect for the juvenile court has grown because of his approach."

The namesake of this award from the Michigan Judges Association was Chief Judge of Oakland County; in the 1980s Gage was the first woman elected chair of the National Conference of State Trial Judges of the American Bar Association and the first woman president of the Michigan Judges Association in 1988.

"I was very thankful to the Michigan Judges Association because when we were working on the Michigan Indian Family Preservation Act, I went to them asking them to endorse it and they were the first organization to sign on. That really has been my involvement with the association, although of course I'm a member. So this award was a surprise," Connors says.

The catalyst for the Michigan Indian Family Preservation Act (MIFPA) was a "special committee" convened by the Michigan Supreme Court in 2008, chaired by now-retired Justice Michael Cavanagh, to consider how to improve ICWA compliance in the state.

Quoting from a presentation by Maribeth Preston, J.D., of the Michigan Court Improvement Program, another important partner, "ICWA is 'remedial' in nature and aims to correct over 200 years of failed government policy and practices toward the Native American people." These negative policies included Indian Boarding Schools, which forcibly placed children in schools where they could "unlearn" Native American ways; and the more recent Indian Adoption Project (1958-1967), involving non-Indian families adopting Native American children.

Judge Connors, Judge Robert Butts from Cheboygan County Probate Court, and Judge Allie Greenleaf Maldonado of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians were among advocates who served on the special committee chaired by Justice Cavanagh.

"While ICWA had been in existence since the late seventies, there was substantial non-compliance, primarily by state institutions around the country," Connors explains. "We here in Michigan said, we don't want to be one of those states. So this incredible task force took a good look at it, and the need for MIFPA came out of that."

Another outcome of that task force was a guidebook for judges, published in 2010 but frequently updated, under the oversight of Kelly Wagner of the Child Welfare Division of the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) who also oversees implementation. Connors played a leading role in the development.

"We were getting rulings all over the place; we had some judges making decisions about tribal lives who were not even aware of the federal law and tribal laws," commented Homer Mandoka, Tribal Council Chair of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi who was active in the task force. "With the guidelines, all judges have the same rules, and Judge Connors was instrumental in that."

Mandoka, a tireless leader in Indian children's rights, comments, "With the passage of MIFPA, Michigan has become a leader in the country."

Connors agrees. "I have seen a paradigm shift in the way of thinking of workers on the reunification docket - far better compliance with ICWA," he says.

But they caution vigilance is necessary for progress to continue. "There are always issues as far as enforcing ICWA, tensions between jurisdictions. That's in part because enrollment criteria for various tribes are so diverse, but some courts are much better than others at identifying which children are eligible for transfer to Indian courts," Petoskey says.

An official Tribal/State/Federal Forum has been convened to help resolve some of this. "We're really going after some very deep issues, there are some great discussions happening. I do know that in Indian Country we're looked at as a real model," Connors says.

Connors and other Washtenaw County Trial Court judges have formed a Peacemaking Court to apply Native American and restorative justice principles to juvenile court proceedings.

"If you're talking about the reunification docket, then our style of advocacy and our approach should mirror the goal. So peacemaking is exactly the tool you would use," Connors says. "The traditional 'criminal'-based model is all right for parental terminations, but we're trying to put families back together and create a supportive community - for the safety of the child."

All of these activities are a practical reflection of Connors' belief system, one he shares with many colleagues and Native Americans. "We can choose to continue to feed misunderstanding and prejudice or we can choose to be enlightened," he says.

Published: Mon, Nov 23, 2015

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