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Judges Fired On Rocky Boy; Both Are Appealing

Duane Gopher and Melody Bernard-Whitford were fired late last week from their positions as tribal judges on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.

While Gopher declined to speak beyond verifying that he’d been fired and that he will appeal, Bernard-Whitford spoke with the Herald about the accusations made by the tribal Judicial Commission and her plans to fight the termination.

Bernard-Whitford said she turned her appeal in Monday and has an appeal process hearing on Sept. 22.

She was notified she’d been fired on Friday.

Bernard-Whitford served for six years as the associate judge handling adult criminal cases. Her position was appointed.

According to her notice of termination, dated Sept. 5, she was fired for misconduct:

On Aug. 7, the Commission said, Bernard-Whitford told someone in court, “There is a ruling, snitches get stitches.”

“This statement from a Judge position is highly frowned upon within any court system,” the Commission said.

Nineteen days later, Bernard-Whitford told someone in court, “Tell your husband to get his dope elsewhere.”

Bernard-Whitford said the comments cited in her termination letter were taken out of context to justify a firing that is really the result of a tangled personal vendetta that has nothing to do with courtroom conduct.

In a follow-up statement, Bernard-Whitford said, “I believe this is nothing more than a personal vendetta by one or more persons directly involved in the outcome of a court proceeding participating with members of the judicial commission, not in regards to the cited cases but relying on the pettiness of alleged courtroom misconduct as a primary excuse covering the real issue to terminate my contract.”

Bernard-Whitford went on to say that she’s presided over some “highly political cases,” including at least two criminal cases involving a judicial member and immediate family members.

Bernard-Whitford maintained that what she did and said in the courtroom is nothing she hadn’t done before, and there is nothing unethical about it.

She said she told a man in her court that “snitches get stitches” as a way to help him understand that she knew why he didn’t want to reveal who’d assaulted him. The man had been beaten while in jail and looked every bit the part at the time of the hearing, she said. As a former police officer, she said, she understands there is code among inmates that says people who tell on other inmates will be hurt.

The point, she said, is she was trying to get the man to open up about who assaulted him by assuring him that she understands why he was reluctant to do so, but in order to help him, it would help to reveal his attacker.

As for the second charge against her, that too is perfectly within proper conduct, she believes.

Yes, Bernard-Whitford said, she did tell someone in her courtroom to tell her husband to get his drugs somewhere else. The reason is because the woman, who had drug-related charges against her, told the judge she was getting drugs for her husband.

“Why are you tarnishing your criminal history by committing criminal acts for someone else?” the judge said, repeating her courtroom admonition.

Normally, the appeals process would go before the chief judge, who would investigate and make a recommendation based on the findings. But since Gopher was the chief judge, Human Resources will select a committee to do what the chief judge normally would do.

Chippewa Cree Judicial Commission Chairman Thomas Limberhand was reached, but he didn’t comment on the matter.

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Email Paul Dragu at editor@havreherald.com

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