By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
During the coronavirus, only one jurisdiction in Wyoming hired a judge specifically to oversee violations of COVID-related orders and quarantine rules.
The Wind River Tribal Court in central Wyoming hired Kevin Ferris Jr. in 2020 as COVID judge, using grant money from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Ferris’ duties, said Clarence Thomas, Tribal Court Administrator, were to handle breaches of COVID orders so that judges responsible for other matters would not be overburdened and to ease crowding in the reservation’s jail.
“It was a big deal, because we were probably the only one in the area that had a specific judge that dealt with COVID responsibilities,” Thomas said. “And it worked. It helped the BIA keep their (jail) numbers down. It helped keep the government resolutions on top of things.”
Ferris transitioned out of his pandemic role in the summer of 2021 and is now an associate judge for the tribal court.
The Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Tribes – both sovereign governments within Wyoming – together crafted the most stringent COVID orders in the state, including stay-at-home and quarantine orders punishable by jail time and fines.
A reservation-wide mask order still stands.
Thomas said that although Ferris oversaw cases pertaining to breach of quarantine and other health order violations, defendants were rarely jailed for those infractions.
And yet, the jail was overcrowded.
“Court numbers spiked pretty high in COVID, with a lot of domestic violence, substance abuse, DUIs, a lot of things just spiked,” Thomas said. “It was a difficult time for people, and mental health-wise, people were having a hard time with it, which caused a lot of different, violent behavior.”
Thomas said numbers are now stabilizing.
“Things are – knock on wood – moving back to normal,” he said. “But we still have high (case) numbers. We’ve always had high numbers here.”
Thomas said having one judge to oversee the unique – yet still punishable – matter of health orders violation was helpful to the rest of the court.
He did not have available the exact number of people who were incarcerated or fined under COVID orders.
‘We Understand The Loss’
Thomas said although there was some court action connected with COVID order violations, most reservation residents adhered to the rules.
“The tribes were getting hit hard by COVID and it was different – it was way different (than off the reservation),” said Thomas.
Due to multi-generational living situations and other health factors, tribal members comprised the first several COVID fatalities in Wyoming.
“We understand the loss,” said Thomas. “And that’s why the tribal governments did what they did, and protected the people.”
Formerly a BIA agent and then a court bailiff, Ferris had to pass a bar exam pertaining to the Shoshone and Arapaho Law and Order Code to be sworn in as judge. The two tribes share a court system under their intertribal program.
Only the head judge at tribal court must have a law degree. Secondary judges may be sworn in if they pass the tribal bar exam.