The hundreds of arrests stemming from Dakota Access oil pipeline protests in North Dakota have reportedly burdened the state's court system, causing a shortage of judges, lawyers and clerks.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has been protesting the $3.8 billion pipeline transporting crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois for months, saying the project threatens the tribe’s drinking water and its sacred cultural sites.
Police have made almost 575 arrests since the movement gained national support in August, an unusually large number for the area, which could cause delays in bringing cases to trial, reports The Associated Press.
“We don’t have sufficient judges to get all of those cases heard in a timely fashion,” said Sally Holewa, North Dakota’s state court administrator.
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Holewa said the volume of cases related to the pipeline raises concerns for the defendants’ rights to a speedy trial and due process, saying “any time justice is unduly delayed, it causes issues.”
“You have issues with people’s memories, and [in this case] you also have people from out of state -- not just those charged, but also police officers from out of state,” Holewa reports. “All of that makes it essential that we try to get these cases heard timely.”
The Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents, an organization that provides public defenders for North Dakota, has taken on 225 protest-related cases to be split among 65 defense attorneys, but reportedly needs additional lawyers to cover the volume of cases.
Executive director H. Jean Delaney said the commission might seek an additional $670,000 from the legislature to cover the “highly unusual” number of cases in the area, amounting to nearly 3.5 percent of its two-year budget.
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The state judicial system will also ask the legislature for a deficiency appropriation of approximately $1.5 million to cover protest fees, an unprecedented request in the judicial branch’s 100-year history.
Although most pipeline cases are being handled in state court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Delorme testified the protests were “consuming significant time and attention” from the federal court system in statements requesting a delay for an unconnected case.
U.S. Attorney Chris Myers has not commented on how many cases the federal court system is handling, but it is known that a high-profile case regarding a Denver woman accused of shooting at officers during a protest was transferred from state to federal court.
Numerous pipeline protesters are also pursuing a lawsuit against Morton County law enforcement officials at a federal court in Bismarck, claiming authorities used unnecessary force that violated their civil rights during protest clashes over the past several months.
Tactics used by police have garnered national attention during the pipeline protests, including incidents of using tear gas, rubber bullets and water spray in freezing conditions against protesters during peaceful demonstrations.