While many court systems pushed back cases indefinitely or shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, Citizen Potawatomi Nation Tribal Court and other departments welcomed changes and additional responsibilities. CPN’s District Court maintained operations throughout 2020 with no major pauses.

CPN Court Clerks Andrea Gabel and Toni Sears learned that “each day can produce a completely different set of challenges and to be flexible and work through them the best that can be done.”

CPN Child Prosecutor Lisa Herbert works in many different courts throughout Oklahoma. She recognizes the clerks’ hard work and efficiency to maintain organization in the midst of implementing new rules.

“It’s really a lot more than just filing things in and setting court dates for people,” Herbert said. “They really have to deal with people who are in crisis, and they do such a beautiful job of that. … I don’t think people really realize how difficult their job is.”

Like many other businesses and offices, the court has increased its use of video calls and teleconferencing. It adds another step in the already hectic process of running a proficient court. However, it provides convenience for witnesses and lawyers while prioritizing social distancing practices.

“It’s just as if the person is there. Those are some new skills that are really having to come into the courtroom practice, and our girls have been up to it. … They’ve been wonderful about trying to accommodate some of the changes and some of the things we’re doing in our courtroom just to try to make things safe,” Herbert said.

The court has incorporated a smartboard for Zoom and video calls. While this adds extra processes when preparing for hearings and sending out information, Gabel believes it has worked well.

“In order for the court to hear a case by virtual appearances and appearances by phone, attorneys must be granted the accommodations in advance,” she said.

“IT (information technology department) has truly been an asset in setting up our smartboard and our other equipment. They also assist in running it for us for court so we can focus on the hearing and/or trial.”

Practical application

FireLodge Children & Family Services Foster Care/Adoption Manager Kendra Lowden frequently appears in court for foster care and adoption cases. She appreciates the ability to maintain services to her clients and knows time is of the essence when moving children between homes.

“If court hearings are delayed, that means sometimes permanency is delayed for children, whether that be reunification to their families or adoption to another family. If the court system doesn’t continue to operate and function during a pandemic, then things are stalled for children, and that’s not necessarily a good thing for them,” Lowden said.

The new technology also created options never before available to her clients. With a restricted number of individuals allowed in the building to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, using Zoom allowed more people to witness an adoption case last May.

“The adoptive families’ relatives were able to attend by just logging onto the Zoom, and they could hear and see everything going on. So they didn’t have to miss out on that special day for this family and that child,” Lowden said.

Additional challenges, changes

The requirements limit the volume of cases heard in a given day, but the staff tries their best to serve everyone as quickly as possible.

“Our number of cases has almost dropped in half compared to the last couple of years. Due to the restricted number of cases we can see each court setting, resetting cases for those who miss court gets difficult,” Gabel said.

Herbert’s decades in law have taught her such changes are not always a bad thing, even though they come from distressing conditions.

“I think we’re all going to learn, and I think we’re just going to keep moving forward,” she said. “And it’s kind of an exciting time when you think about what we’ve had to do to adapt and the things that we’ve been willing to do to commit to keep going. In a way, some of this is good for us.”

Gabel reminds everyone to follow the new coronavirus stipulations and that everyone’s well-being remains a priority — both staff and those required for proceedings.

“Please make your court hearings if you are well and healthy! If you are sick, we want you to stay home so you can get healthy. Just let us know as soon as possible so we can get the changes in motion. We can start working then to get the case back on the docket,” she said.

For more information on the CPN District Court, visit cpn.news/judicial.