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Case Closed: Fired Rocky Boy Judge Takes Buyout

Former Rocky Boy Tribal Judge Melody Bernard-Whitford has accepted a buyout from her position after a protracted dispute with the tribe’s judicial commission.

She said the Chippewa Cree Business Committee, or tribal council, reinstated her last Tuesday, but she added, judicial commission members were planning to fire her once again as soon as she set foot in the courthouse.

Business Committee members asked if she wanted to go through the ordeal again. She said she would take a buyout this time. The tribe will pay her for the rest of her contract, which was set to expire in September 2020.

She said the buyout agreement prohibits her from disclosing the terms of the deal, but when asked how much she would receive, she laughed and said “not much after taxes.”

She said she was still “baffled” by the experience and has never been told why she lost her job.

She said politics may be part of the problem.

Bernard-Whitford said she was tough on prosecutors and police officers, insisting that they follow proper procedures. She said that’s the way things ought to be, and pointed to a case last week when District Court Judge Kydee Snipes-Ruiz dismissed a case against an alleged drug dealer because police didn’t follow proper procedures.

In past interviews, Bernard-Whitford speculated the firing may have had something to do with a personal vendetta against her.

She said business committee members seemed as confused as she is about why she was dismissed. 

Business Committee chair Harlan Baker was not available for comment on Tuesday.

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Judge Duane Gopher, who was fired the same day as Bernard-Whitford, advised her against fighting the termination as hard as she did, she said. 

She said the fight has been stressful and maybe Gopher was right, but she thinks she may have proved a point.

This is the second time Gopher has been fired during a controversy. Several years ago, he was fired, his supporters alleged, because his rulings often favored controversial tribal chairman Ken St. Marks, who was out of favor with the tribal council majority. Years later, Gopher was rehired. 

Bernard-Whitford applied for unemployment insurance benefits, but was denied because she was fired for “misconduct,”  though she was never told what the misconduct was.

According to her notice of termination, there were two instances in court where she said things “highly frowned upon within any court system:”

During one hearing, she told someone, “There is a ruling, snitches get stitches.” In another hearing, she said to someone, “Tell your husband to get his dope elsewhere.”

The former judge has disputed not that she said those things, but that they were taken highly out of context and then used as a weapon against her. For more on that, read the Herald story.

Since then, she has been working at Walmart, but soon will start as executive assistant for historian Alvin Windy Boy at iResponse, a tribal historic preservation program.

She has applied for her old judge’s job and for Gopher’s chief judge position. The jobs have been posted for some time, she said. She has heard nothing from the judicial commission. 

She said the one remaining judge and a special judge from Helena have been handling all the tribal court work. 

She has applied and been interviewed for a judge’s position at Fort Belknap, where she has served several times as a special judge.

In September, she and former judge Gopher were fired from their positions as tribal judges. Both had said they would appeal, but only Bernard-Whitford did so. In October, her appeal was denied.


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Paul Dragu contributed to this story.

Email John Kelleher at john@havreherald.com.

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