November 01, 2016

Exit, Pursued by a Bear: Why Peacemaking Makes Sense in State Court Justice Systems

By Judge Timothy Connors

For some, Shakespeare’s famous stage directive is more than a visual transition. It is a metaphorical recognition that we need to take a different path. The bear is our collective self. It represents how we too often respond to conflict between each other in our justice systems. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed: “If we do an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we will be a blind and toothless nation.” In the end, the bear consumes us all.

Some believe that tribal court peacemaking offers us that alternative path. This path leaves us with our sensibilities intact and our better selves renewed. I speak now of our collective selves. I speak of a justice system that views the healing of controversy as an institutional foundation to its public responsibility. As a state court judge who has embraced peacemaking in our state courts, I am one of those who believe.

In 2013, our Michigan Supreme Court asked our county to explore tribal court peacemaking philosophies, principles, and procedures and report on whether state courts could benefit from what we learned from our tribal neighbors. We did.

And we can.

We were fortunate to have teachers within our borders. Michigan shares its two peninsulas with 12 federally recognized tribes. Tribal Court Judge Michael Peto­skey, a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, is the architect of many of our federally recognized tribal courts in Michigan. He was invaluable in providing guidance in both our exploration and implementation of peacemaking. Our path was enlightened by other tribal court judges and peacemakers as well.2 The foundational basis for our education came from the Michigan Tribal State Federal Judicial Forum of our Michigan Supreme Court. That forum was initially established in 1991 by Supreme Court Justice Michael F. Cavanagh. Justice Cavanagh prophetically commented in the first meeting with our tribal neighbors: “We know that we have more to learn from you than you have to learn from us.”

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