The Justice Department today released plans aimed at strengthening its efforts to fight crime in American Indian tribal lands.
The DOJ intends to make the Office of Tribal Justice a separate component within the Justice Department and will establish a “Tribal Nations Leadership Council” to help improve collaboration and communication between American Indian leaders and Justice Department officials, according to a DOJ memo. Currently the office is under the purview of the Deputy Attorney General, but is not a permanent entity with the Justice Department structure.
In addition, U.S. Attorneys who have American Indian reservations in their districts and DOJ officials who handle tribal grants will be required to meet with tribal leaders, the memo said. DOJ will also establish an American Indian task force to create guidance and strategies for prosecutions of crimes of violence against women in Indian country, according to the memo.
“The Justice Department embraces this responsibility and the principles of tribal sovereignty and Indian self-determination,” the memo said. “The Department, at all levels, is committed to developing a comprehensive communication and coordination policy with tribes that is predicated on robust tribal input.”
The plans, which were sent to Office of Management and Budget on Jan. 27, will be financed through existing DOJ funds, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman. The department received more than $237 million in its fiscal 2010 budget for Indian country prosecutions and criminal investigations. The department has also made millions of dollars in grant money available to America Indian tribes, especially for programs that fight violence against women.
The proposed fiscal 2011 DOJ budget includes nearly $450 million to fund initiatives in American Indian tribal lands. The budget request also included $1.8 million for expanding the Office of Tribal Justice, according to the spokeswoman.
The Office of Tribal Justice was created under a federal statute in 1995, but exists at the discretion of the Attorney General. The Office of Tribal Justice serves as the department’s point of contact with American Indian tribes on justice issues.
The plans are the latest in a series of Justice Department initiatives to fight Indian country crime, which former Deputy Attorney General David Ogden said last month has hit “unacceptable levels” and is diminishing the quality of life for American Indians.
Last month, the DOJ announced a series of new Indian Country policies in an effort to combat the high level of crime there. Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder and top DOJ brass held several meetings with tribal leaders as part of a listening tour through Indian country.
South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, chairman of the American Indian issues subcommittee of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys, told Main Justice that the DOJ has taken great strides in addressing American Indian concerns.
“Tribal leaders have been heard in the past, but they haven’t been listened to,” Johnson said. He added: “[DOJ officials] have been listening to what tribal leaders have been telling us.”
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Two Sioux Falls police officers were patrolling on a below-freezing South Dakota night in February 2004 when they saw a middle-aged man acting suspiciously at a group of storage sheds. Upon questioning by the officers, a scuffle ensued. Shots were fired.
No one was killed. But the high-profile local incident helped propel the career of a young prosecutor.
Brendan Johnson, then a deputy state’s attorney in the Minnehaha County state’s attorney’s office – and now the U.S. Attorney for South Dakota – helped successfully prosecute John S. Lewis, who received two life sentences without parole and 145 years in state prison for the attempted murders of officers Michael Iverson and Scott Reitmeier.
Johnson, the son of South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson (D), was not yet 30 years old.
State prosecutors interviewed by Main Justice said the murder case was an important turning point for Johnson, who worked in the state’s attorney’s office from 2003 to 2005. Dave Nelson, the Minnehaha County state’s attorney from 1988 to 2008, said Johnson did a “real nice job” on the case.
“I really do remember working with that case and how impressed I was with him,” Nelson told Main Justice.
In a recent interview in Washington with Main Justice, Johnson cited the case as one of his most challenging prosecutions. But as a state prosecutor, Johnson said he also worked on difficult domestic violence cases, which will continue to be a major focus of the 28-attorney U.S. Attorney’s office that he took over last October.
“It’s very rewarding to be dealing with important issues ranging from national security — which is a priority even in rural states like South Dakota — to Indian country issues, to violence against women and children,” Johnson said.
Long Days and Long Drives
Now, Johnson’s work often takes him across a district that covers 77,000 square miles – almost nine times the size of New Jersey. He frequently travels from his home in Sioux Falls to one of his state’s nine American Indian reservations, or to the U.S. Attorney’s office branches in Pierre, Rapid City and Aberdeen.
Rapid City, the farthest outpost from the South Dakota U.S. Attorney’s main office, is almost five and a half hours away from the Sioux Falls headquarters. Last week, Johnson drove two hours to Oacoma, S.D., for part of a listening conference he arranged between his office and state tribal leaders. But he’s also driven more than five hours to visit the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
“In order to do that in a state of South Dakota’s size, on days when I’m on the road, I usually leave at 4, 4:30 in the morning, drive to one of the offices or Indian country and get back later in the evening,” Johnson said.
Johnson, 34 years old, said prosecuting cases from the state’s Indian country is a “significant portion” of his office’s work. American Indians make up only about 10 percent of South Dakota’s population, but account for about half of the state’s federal cases, according to Johnson. The U.S. Attorney’s office prosecutes almost all Indian country felonies.
The U.S. Attorney said he and his office’s Assistant U.S. Attorneys regularly meet with tribal leaders across the state to forge stronger ties. As chairman of the American Indian issues subcommittee of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys, Johnson is a leading voice in the Justice Department’s increased efforts to fight crime in Indian country.
“You have to earn the trust of the people you’re working with so that when they have a tip, when they know information about the investigation, they’re comfortable contacting me or somebody else in the office and letting us know what is going on,” Johnson said. “You’re not going to get that information unless you build the relationships first and earn people’s trust.”
As an appointee of a Democratic administration, Johnson has tried to build up trust in a state that voted 53 percent for Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008, with 45 percent supporting now-President Barack Obama.
A partner at Johnson, Heidepriem & Abdallah in Sioux Falls from 2005 to 2009, Johnson said he reached out to Republican leaders in his state — including former Gov. William Janklow – when he was seeking the U.S. Attorney nomination. Janklow, who also served as the state’s attorney general from 1974 to 1978, said in a recommendation letter that Johnson was “marvelously talented and respected.”
“I know you take a little heat. But if you look at the kid’s resume, he’s accomplished a lot,” said Russ Janklow, William’s son and a former law partner of Johnson’s.
Johnson said he believes South Dakota Republicans and Democrats know his commitment to the law.
“I think one of the reasons why they were comfortable with me is to me, there is a line that prosecutors shouldn’t cross when it comes to politics,” Johnson said. “And as a prosecutor, I think folks would say I always played it straight, wasn’t involved in politics when I was prosecuting cases for the county. I think they felt that I did some good things as a prosecutor.”
To avoid any appearance of impropriety, his father decided to have all applications received for South Dakota U.S. Attorney submitted directly to the White House without preference, according to Johnson.
But a conservative South Dakota political blog said it is “impossible to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”
“Unless we now have adopted the monarchy that our forefathers eschewed so long ago, and endorse the naked building of political dynasties. Because that’s the only way this can be justified,” said the South Dakota War College blog when Johnson was nominated for U.S. Attorney in July 2009.
It isn’t unheard of for U.S. Attorney candidates to have familial or close personal ties to a senator from their state.
In 2001 then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) recommended his son, Strom Thurmond Jr., for the South Carolina U.S. Attorney post, which the son held for three years. Last year, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) recommended his live-in girlfriend, Melodee Hanes, to be the Montana U.S. Attorney. But she withdrew from consideration, and Helena attorney Michael Cotter won Senate confirmation last year.
Both the Thurmond and Baucus recommendations were controversial. Johnson’s was not.
“My father and I really don’t have the type of relationship where that would be an issue,” Johnson said. “I think we both have a pretty clear understanding that he has his job to do, which I respect and is an important job. But it’s separate and distinct from what I’m doing.”
A future in politics?
Michael Card, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota, said a prominent South Dakotan like Johnson could have a future in politics, perhaps running for Congress one day.
“Even if he’s not thinking of it, others are thinking of him,” Card said.
Johnson, however, demurs when asked whether he might one day run for public office. “My only focus is serving South Dakota as the U.S. Attorney.”
Johnson said his conversations with his father are generally more personal than political. about his four children, which include two young boys and two older kids adopted from Ethiopia about two and a half years ago.
His wife of seven years, Jana, encouraged the U.S. Attorney to read a book called, “There is No Me Without You,” which was about an Ethiopian orphanage. After reading the book, they decided to contact the author, Melissa Greene, and ask her about adopting older children from the orphanage.
Johnson and his wife adopted a girl first and then, two months later, they decided to adopt a boy.
“Once their English got a little better, we discovered they didn’t get along particularly well and so this idea that they were going to become brother and sister wasn’t something they were particularly excited about,” he said. “But they are incredible kids. They are a wonderful addition to our family.”
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The Justice Department will implement new policies in American Indian tribal lands in an effort to combat the high level of crime there, Attorney General Eric Holder announced today.
According to a DOJ news release, the Attorney General ordered the 44 U.S. Attorneys who serve in districts that have tribal lands to:
- “meet and consult with tribes in their district annually.”
- “develop an operational plan addressing public safety in Indian Country”
- “work closely with law enforcement to pay particular attention to violence against women in Indian Country and make these crimes a priority.”
- “to provide summaries of their operational plans to the Office of the Deputy Attorney General and make those summaries available to the tribes in their districts.”
The DOJ received more than $237 million in its fiscal year 2010 budget for Indian Country prosecutions and criminal investigations, according to a DOJ spokesperson. The Justice Department will use $6 million of the funds to hire at least 35 Assistant U.S. Attorneys and 12 FBI victim specialists to handle American Indian cases, according to the news release.
“The public safety challenges we face in Indian Country will not be solved by a single grant or a single piece of legislation. There is no quick fix,” Holder said in a statement. “While today’s directive is significant progress, we need to continue our efforts with federal, state and tribal partners to identify solutions to the challenges we face, and work to implement them.”
Top DOJ officials including Holder, Deputy Attorney General David Ogden and Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli met with American Indian leaders during a listening tour last year. Ogden said in a memo to the U.S. Attorneys that crime in tribal lands has hit “unacceptable levels” and is diminishing the quality of life in Indian Country.
“The Attorney General is depending upon you, as leaders of the Justice Department in your respective districts, to craft individual tribal assessments and action plans that respond to the unique challenges facing tribal communities in your district,” Ogden said in the memo.
South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, who chairs an American Indian issues subcommittee of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys, told Main Justice that the policies are an “important step” toward improving the Justice Department’s relationship with tribes. He said he will hold a listening session in February with his state’s tribes, with an eye toward developing a plan for reducing Indian Country crime in his district.
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Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Salter will head a new appellate division in the South Dakota U.S. Attorney’s office.
U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson announced the appellate division on Monday. The U.S. Attorney’s office in South Dakota had previously lacked an appellate division.
“The importance of that division and that role has grown,” Johnson told the Argus Leader newspaper. “The cases we send to the 8th Circuit not only affect us but affect every district.”
The St. Louis-based 8th Circuit Court of Appeals also hears cases from North Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Arkansas.
Salter is a 1990 graduate of South Dakota State University and a 1993 graduate of the University of South Dakota Law School, the Argus Leader reporter. He is based in Sioux Falls and has been with the U.S. Attorney’s office for five years.
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The recently confirmed U.S. Attorney for South Dakota will chair the American Indian issues subcommittee of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys, the Justice Department announced last week.
Brendan Johnson, who was confirmed Oct. 15, will advise Attorney General Eric Holder on Justice Department initiatives in tribal lands and legal issues affecting American Indians.
The Attorney General’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys is a 17-member policy-making and advisory body that serves as the voice of the U.S. Attorneys at DOJ headquarters in Washington. Minnesota U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones chairs the committee.
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The Senate confirmed the top federal prosecutors for Alaska and South Dakota tonight by unanimous consent.
-Brendan Johnson (South Dakota): The Sioux Falls lawyer and son of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) will succeed Marty Jackley, who was sworn in as South Dakota attorney general last month is seeking a full term in that post. Johnson was nominated July 14. Read more about the Johnson here.
-Karen Loeffler (Alaska): The Alaska interim U.S. Attorney took over the post from Nelson Cohen March 1. She was nominated July 14. Read more about Loeffler here.
The Senate has now confirmed 18 U.S. Attorneys, including all nominees reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. There are another 12 nominees waiting for votes in committee. There are 93 U.S. Attorney positions around the country.
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The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia won confirmation Wednesday night by unanimous consent.
Timothy Heaphy will replace acting U.S. Attorney Julia Dudley at the Roanoke, Va.-based post. President Obama nominated the partner at McGuireWoods in Charlottesville, Va., July 31. Read more about the Heaphy here.
Heaphy will be the first presidentially appointed U.S. Attorney to lead Western District of Virginia since John Brownlee, who resigned in April 2008 to campaign for the Virginia attorney general Republican nomination. Brownlee lost the nomination to state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli in May.
The Senate has now confirmed 16 U.S. Attorneys. The body has yet to consider U.S. Attorney nominees Brendan Johnson for South Dakota and Karen Loeffler for Alaska, who were reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. There are another 12 nominees, who are waiting for votes in committee.
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The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed the U.S. Attorney nominees for South Dakota and Alaska today by unanimous consent.
-Brendan Johnson (South Dakota): The Sioux Falls lawyer and son of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) was nominated July 14. He would succeed Marty Jackley, who was sworn in as South Dakota attorney general last month. Read more about the nominee here.
-Karen Loeffler (Alaska): The Alaska interim U.S. Attorney was nominated July 14. She took over the post from Nelson Cohen March 1. Read more about Loeffler here.
Sen. Johnson reportedly said in July he was staying out of the South Dakota U.S. Attorney nomination process. But the senator and his aides engaged in some surreptitious discussions with Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, to find out why his son’s nomination was not moving through the Senate, Politico reported today.
“The senator has a responsibility to the people of South Dakota to see that these posts are filled and did check on the status of the nominee, as he has with other pending presidential nominations,” Sen. Johnson spokesperson Julianne Fisher told Politico. “Of course, Sen. Johnson is proud of Brendan, but first and foremost, he wants the position filled, so we don’t have cases lingering back home.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee has now approved a total of 18 U.S. Attorney nominees. The Senate has confirmed 15 of those nominees. The panel has yet to vote on 12 nominees.
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The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday will consider the nominations of Brendan Johnson for U.S. Attorney in South Dakota and Karen Loeffler for U.S. Attorney in Alaska.
Also on the agenda are nominees for the following judicial posts:
Jacqueline H. Nguyen to be United States District Judge for the Central District of California
Edward Milton Chen to be United States District Judge for the Northern District of California
Dolly M. Gee to be United States District Judge for the Central District of California
Richard Seeborg to be United States District Judge for the Northern District of California
The nomination of Steven O’Donnell to be U.S. Marshal for the District of Rhode Island will also come before the panel Thursday.
As the Senate prepares to consider the nomination of Brendan Johnson for U.S. Attorney for South Dakota, the son of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) is pulling double duty, The Sioux Journal reported. The younger Johnson continues to practice in his private law firm in Sioux Falls while also bulking up for his expected new job. He’s been traveling across the state meeting with “different constituency groups and learning about the state,” Johnson told the newspaper.
Johnson’s nomination is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee. “There is no timeline yet to get out of committee and onto the Senate floor,” he told the newspaper.
And the nominee can’t turn to his father for help. The senator has said he won’t’ intervene in any manner in his son’s confirmation process, The Sioux Journal reported.
If confirmed, much of Johnson’s job will focus on tribal justice, the newspaper reported. The senior Johnson sits on the Committee on Indian Affairs.