6 Questions With Joey Jayne, Montana’s First Native Woman Justice Court Judge
Northwestern Montana’s Lake County Justice of the Peace-elect Joey Jayne, Navajo, was elected after which she calls a lot of perseverance in this year’s 2012 election cycle. She’s the first Native woman Justice Court Judge in Montana’s history, and one of two Natives ever elected to the position – the other is current Justice of the Peace Leroy Not Afraid, Crow, in eastern Montana’s Big Horn County. Born in Shiprock and raised in Tohatchi, New Mexico, Jayne’s passion for justice landed her up north as judge of a county that incorporates the Flathead Indian Reservation. She spoke with Indian Country Today Media Network about her passion to see justice prevail across Indian country.
What made you decide to pursue law?
I got accepted to the University of Montana Law School when I was working as a department director for the Navajo Nation Water Management Branch for a water rights attorney. So that’s pretty much how I got into law: I wanted to be a water rights attorney. Water rights are a big hot button topic down there. Ironically, I don’t work in water rights now, per se, although I’d still like too since that’s what I went to school for. I have a Master’s of Science degree in Watershed Management and Hydrology from the University of Arizona, and Agricultural Industry bachelor’s degree from Arizona State.
Can you tell me about your experience as a state legislature?
I ran out of term limits after 2008, but it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, is what I can sum it up as. I was involved in making laws, and deciding laws that would affect the people for not only my district, but for people of the entire state of Montana.
What was campaigning like as a Native in a predominately white area?
When I won people would always say, ‘Well, she won because it’s an Indian district!’ But I won in a district that was 80 percent non-Indian, so a person has to campaign and get the trust of those people as well. And you’re not going to get all 20 percent of the Indian vote either, and that’s OK. In the 2000 state legislative election I won against a popular Republican incumbent by 54 votes, and the media thought it was a fluke. But I’d gone door to door for about nine months, and I was actually told to my face at someone’s house, ‘I’m not going to vote for you because you’re Indian.’ Those were the exact words! But that didn’t stop me, I just said, ‘OK, thank you,’ and went to the next door. But that’s how it is and you just have to keep going, because that’s how you eventually make peace. It just reminded me of way back in the days when some of our tribal leaders had to fight and compromise for our people, and ‘compromise’ actually meant talking with people who didn’t agree with you.
But for the second 2-year term in 2002, I ran against the same person and won by over 200 votes, and that quieted down the media accusations about me being a ‘fluke.’ So the last two sessions of 2004 and 2006-08, I was not opposed at all. I’ve worked really hard to get where I’m at, and it just didn’t land in my lap.
What made you want to take the next step up in your legal career and become a judge?
I have a lot of passion for justice, and people should receive what is right because of their civil rights. A lot of times people might be treated better if they have more money; or maybe they’re treated better because they’re connected to people who work for the state; or maybe they’re treated different and don’t receive equal justice because of their skin color or religion. It’s the very tenants of the Constitution that give us the gifts of life, liberty, and property. I saw a lot of inequities where people weren’t treated right or equally for the same offensives versus someone who may have a lot of money. Regardless, that person with just one dollar should get the same treatment as someone with $100, so to speak.
Why would it be good for the U.S. to see a Native on the Supreme Court someday?
This individual would be cognizant of federal Indian federal law and case law as it applies to Indian country jurisdiction. Whether it’s at that level, or Justice Court level, or City Court level, they’d have that knowledge and perspective of Indian law. Basically the end result of court systems is to resolve differences while keeping in mind all individuals. We all live in a diverse community, and it’s real that we have federal law, and it’s real that we have tribal laws and jurisdictions on reservations in the middle of counties. So I think it brings perspective there’s always these other laws at play.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
It is an absolute honor to be voted in by constituents of Lake County! We have one Indian on the east side of the state in Leroy Not Afraid, and now one on the west side of the state with me. It just opens up an opportunity for me to open up a dialogue. It’s not to say that Natives are going to get a special deal in my court, because they’re not. In fact, I think it’s sometimes ironic we hold Natives up to a higher standard and level, and that’s good because of what we’ve gone through.