Suffolk Law students had the rare opportunity to draft new court rules for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's district court. The students from Suffolk Law’s Indian Law and Indigenous Peoples Clinic worked with the tribe's Chief Judge and Elders Judiciary Committee.  

The process began late in 2010, when Henry Sockbeson, Chief Judge of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Supreme Court, reached out to Suffolk Law and asked if the school could help draft rules for the tribe’s District Court. The tribe had been using federal rules for their courts but found that those weren’t the best fit for the community. They needed something better tailored to their needs.

Need to avoid cases that drag on for years

“If you’re using the [federal] rules… a case can go on for years,” said Vivian Bussiere, chairwoman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Elders Judiciary Committee. “We had done some surveys with our people, and we asked them what they wanted in a court. The number one answer was speedy resolutions.”

In addition, many of the tribe's members represent themselves in court. So the court rules needed to be specific while being as straightforward as possible.

Rules drafted with just one tribal court in mind

Clinical Professor Nicole Friederichs directs the Indian Law and Indigenous Peoples Clinic. 

“By drafting rules to be solely used by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, we were able to ensure that the rules reflected the needs and configuration of the tribe’s judiciary,” Friederichs said.

The commitment to finding language that was accurate but easily understandable meant that Suffolk Law students were constantly drafting and redrafting the rules in consultation with the court and judiciary committee. With an emphasis on facilitating openness, they sent drafts of the rules back and forth and spoke with everyone from tribal elders to lawyers who would be working in the court to the general membership of the tribe to civil procedure professors at Suffolk Law.

Chief Judge Sockbeson said that including the opinions of so many individuals is part of the reason the project took a little longer than he initially thought it would. 

“But we took our time and got it done correctly,” he said.

Starting from scratch

Suffolk Law clinic student Brendan Kennedy said that coming up with a completely new set of rules was daunting but also exciting. 

"One of the great things about the whole experience is that it’s a very rare occurrence where, in the legal field, you get to write rules of civil procedure,” Kennedy said. “We literally did that – we didn’t just copy the federal or Massachusetts rules. We started from scratch.”

Kimberly Buder JD ’12, who participated in the first semester of the clinic, said working “closely with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in the creation of the rules of civil procedure….was one of the most fulfilling experiences I had in law school.”

Next Up: Rules of Evidence

The rules took two years to build, and the success of the project has led to additional rules drafting projects. Currently, the Indian Law and Indigenous Peoples Clinic is drafting rules of evidence and appellate court procedures for the Mashpee judiciary.

"While we participated in the development of the Mashpee Tribal Court, we also got to be part of nation building, which was immensely rewarding," Kennedy said. "The transactional skills that we developed can hopefully be applied to future projects for the Mashpee and for other tribes that are developing their tribal court structures."

“We’re very thankful for the students and faculty who helped develop the civil procedure rules,” Sockbeson said. “In fact, in the hard copy there’s an acknowledgement with a list of all the students and faculty who assisted us in developing the rules.”

Friederichs said she hopes that the partnership between the tribe and Suffolk Law will continue, especially because it’s so mutually beneficial. 

“The goal of the clinic is to meet the legal needs of New England’s tribal communities, and at the same time give students an opportunity to work on these types of projects,” she said. “It’s about providing the best service for our clients, which are the tribal governments here in New England, and providing the best opportunity for students to learn about what it really means to be a lawyer.”