Melissa L. Pope currently serves as the Chief Judge of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi Tribal Court. She has been consistently reappointed by Tribal Council since February 2011 with the most recent four-year appointment made in December 2022. Judge Pope has also served in the elected position of Chief Justice of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Tribal Court of Appeals since 2009. In addition, Judge Pope has been teaching American Indian Law as a Member of the Adjunct Faculty at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law since 2007.
Judge Pope has been actively engaged in the Anti-Violence Movement throughout her life. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1992, she worked in the University’s Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives where she had the honor of working with many communities through which she gained an understanding of the shared experiences of marginalized communities. She also became an advocate to end violence against women through involvement with the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, the Women’s Forum, and Take Back the Night. She further facilitated the Student Delegation of the Four Directions Council, an Indigenous non-governmental organization, that successfully advocated for recognition of traditional Indigenous methods for developing and sustaining populations for the 1995 United Nations Conference on Population and Development held in Egypt.
After earning her Juris Doctor Degree in 1999 from the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Judge Pope worked at Cooley. Although her duties were primarily administrative, she continued to facilitate social justice programming, including holding the first Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Program. While on the Oakland University Campus, she also became involved with the S.A.F.E. Program, an educational program designed to not only educate about the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Questioning community, but serve as a resource to LGBITQ students, faculty, and staff.
Judge Pope next served as staff attorney for the Women’s Survival Center of Oakland County. The WSC Legal Program provided legal services to Survivors of domestic violence with Staff Attorneys representing Victims in the most severe of cases, in part due to the significant commitment of time required in these cases. While WSC closed more than a year after she began employment due to lack of funding, Judge Pope continued representation of her clients at the time of closure through the conclusion of every case. While serving as the staff attorney at WSC, she gained extensive knowledge about the dynamics of domestic violence, the challenges Survivors face within the legal system, and the significant need for training about domestic violence generally and within marginalized communities.
Judge Pope continued in the Anti-Violence Movement by next serving as the first director of victim services at Triangle Foundation, now Equality Michigan. She provided direct services to Victims of anti-LGBTIQ violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, and discrimination. The data she collected and reported on the overwhelming level of violence experienced and the discrimination LGBTIQ Victims faced in accessing the legal system, medical services, and victim services, furthered her commitment to the fundamental belief that equality for one community can only be achieved through the equality of all.
While at Triangle Foundation and in her subsequent position as coordinator of the Oakland University Gender and Sexuality Center, Judge Pope had the honor of serving on the First Nations Two Spirit Collective. The Collective developed trainings and materials on Tribal Sovereignty, the loss of the traditional role of LGBTIQ Indigenous People, many of whom identify with the contemporary term of Two Spirit, the subsequent discrimination experienced, and how acceptance and the return to traditional values of Two Spirit People would help to improve the quality of life for all Indigenous People. She also had the honor of serving on the Leadership of the ROOTS Coalition, a collective of 14 LGBTIQ organizations and collectives from marginalized communities across the spectrum of race, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, gender identity and expression, disability, and socioeconomic backgrounds. She further became actively engaged with the Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes and multiple other agencies to provide trainings to law enforcement, prosecutors, victim service providers, medical service providers, and other entities on domestic violence in same-gender couples, anti-LGBTIQQ hate crimes, and anti-American Indian hate crimes, to name but a few topics.
Judge Pope brought this knowledge and experience to the exciting endeavor of developing the NHBP Tribal Court that had been established in 2006 through the NHBP Constitution. Since being appointed, Judge Pope has been actively involved with the efforts of NHBP to address the epidemic of violence against Indigenous People. As a delegate to the Inter-Tribal Working Group on Criminal Jurisdiction and the NHBP VAWA Enactment Team, Judge Pope worked in collaboration with NHBP Staff from the other branches to develop the infrastructure, programs, and services needed to adopt a Domestic Violence Code that included restored jurisdiction pursuant to VAWA 2013 and now VAWA 2022. With her prioritizing Victim Services, the Court established the NHBP Tribal Court Victim Services Program prior to the adoption of the NHBP Domestic Violence Code. Under her leadership, she has expanded the VSD to now include two full-time Staff, one Staff in the Culture Department to plant, care for, and harvest Sacred Medicines to empower Survivors, consistent access to a Traditional Female Healer, and services that span the specific needs of each individual Survivor, in part by managing multiple Grants.
Judge Pope has further utilized her knowledge, skills, and passion to build the Court system in collaboration with Tribal Council, Tribal Elders, and Tribal Citizens to not only create a Victim Services Department, but integrate trauma-informed, victim-centered, traditional culturally honoring care into the very foundation of the NHBP Tribal Court. The systems created within the Court integrate Victim safety and access to services. For example, an individual wanting to petition for a personal protection order meets with VSD Staff to ensure that they understand the process as it differs from the State of Michigan process in two ways. First, the Court sets a hearing on a permanent PPO if an ex parte PPO is granted as opposed to the respondent having to request a hearing. Second, the VSD assists with such critical processes as service as the State of Michigan does not provide service free of charge to indigent petitioners. The VSD has further worked with the Tribal Government and Tribal Businesses to establish policies that carefully create opportunities for Victims to access services in safe and confidential spaces during work hours, including appointments with VSD Staff, participation in court processes, and counseling. Through these policies and VSD Staff assistance, numerous Survivors have been empowered to courageously leave their abusers to live free from violence while retaining their employment to care for themselves and their families.
From the unique experience she brought to the position of Chief Judge, Judge Pope has the understanding that most defendants and respondents, especially when American Indian, have also been victimized by violence. Judge Pope has utilized her knowledge and experience to develop opportunities for paths towards healing that extend across the types of cases before the NHBP Tribal Court, as well as for providing paths to avoid entering or returning to court systems. In recognizing the importance of providing opportunities for healing to defendants and respondents, she continues to first prioritize the safety of Survivors, their families and the community, as well as the fundamental requirement of accountability. To ensure the proper supervision of defendants and respondents that protects safety, facilitates accountability, and provides opportunities for healing through services that include traditional culturally honoring practices, Judge Pope has carefully developed the Probation Department to include two divisions: Supervision; and Intervention. Development of the Probation Department infrastructure has included becoming the first Tribal Court in Michigan to attain and maintain direct access to the Law Enforcement Information Network.
In addition to the development of the NHBP Tribal Court, Judge Pope is actively engaged within the mainstream legal profession to build partnerships that will help to end the epidemic of violence against Indigenous People, support all Survivors, and provide opportunities for defendants to be accountable for their actions and change. Most recently, Judge Pope was reappointed by Governor Whitmer to a second term on the Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board. She also serves as Co-Chair of the Michigan Tribal State Federal Judicial Forum and President of the Michigan Indian Judicial Association. She also remains active in the State Bar of Michigan, serving as an appointed member of the American Indian Law and Access to Justice Policy Committees.