South Dakota Judge Displays Pattern of Racism


On November 4th, South Dakota’s Supreme Court struck down a standing order that barred all Oglala Lakota County residents from serving on juries. The court found that the 2009 standing order issued by Seventh District Court Judge Jeff Davis unnecessarily violated the civic rights of residents in that county.

“The circuit court’s ruling, effectively prohibiting the entire population of a South Dakota county from participating in their civic right to be a juror, is a structural defect we cannot allow,” declared Chief Justice David Gilbertson in the court’s unanimous ruling.

Oglala Lakota County has roughly 14,000 residents, approximately 96% of whom are Native American. For the past six years, none of them have been allowed to exercise their right to serve on a jury of their peers.

Justice Gilbertson went on to rule that Davis’ standing order to exclude the residents of a county from service far exceeded his authority as a circuit court Judge. Davis also failed to file this motion for approval with the South Dakota Supreme Court, as he was mandated to do.

The actions of Judge Davis are deplorable and fully consistent with his history of arbitrary and racially discriminatory judicial conduct.

In March of 2015, a federal court ruled against Judge Davis in the lawsuit Oglala Sioux Tribe v. Van Hunnik, brought by the ACLU that accused Davis, Pennington County Prosecutor Mark Vargo, State Director of the Department of Social Services (DSS) Lynne Valenti, and Pennington County DSS employee Luann Van Hunnik, of systematically violating the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, and due process clause of the 14th amendment of the Untied States Constitution.

Chief Judge Jeffrey L. Viken’s ruling found that, “An alarmingly high percentage of Indian families are broken up by the removal, often unwarranted, of their children from them by non-tribal public and private agencies, and that an alarmingly high percentage of these children are placed in non-Indian foster and adoptive homes and institutions.”

Davis often arranged custody hearings within 48 hours of removing a child from their family, before the parents could arrange adequate legal support. Typically, Davis would consider a case for less than five minutes, before ruling against the parents. Children removed were often kept in foster care for weeks and months before being reunited with their families.

Viken declared that, “Indian children, parents and tribes deserve better”, and ordered the state to: Provide parents with adequate notice prior to emergency removal hearings, allow parents to testify at those hearings and present evidence, appoint attorneys to assist parents in these removal proceedings, allow parents to cross-examine the state’s witnesses in the hearings, and require state courts to base their decisions on evidence presented during these hearings.

The ruling also found the conduct of Davis to be particularly damaging, because his colleagues often followed the policies he set on removing Indian children from their homes.

The recent ruling against Davis and that of Oglala Sioux Tribe v Van Hunnik are not isolated incidents of one disgruntled judge, but are representative of the system of discrimination and exclusion faced by the Lakota people in South Dakota. Both of these cases go beyond Davis, and accuse other judges, prosecutors and state DSS employees of racial bias and misconduct. They come at the same time as a federal lawsuit launched by the Department of Justice, which accuses South Dakota DSS of screening prospective employees by race.

Judge Viken is correct when he declares that American Indians in South Dakota deserve better than the systemic injustices that are currently perpetrated against them, at all levels of South Dakota state government and administration.


17 thoughts on “South Dakota Judge Displays Pattern of Racism”

    1. If people get an education in South Dakota, they are supposed reside here for six years. Some of the Native people relocated to other states and became successful. It will be a loss to South Dakota of the Native people leave. There are many well educated Native people and also very talented in athletics. They are coming up. We communicate now at the speed of light. If only we could over come our resentments and move forward for the sake of our Nation and the sake of future generations. It’s inevitable to be GREATER THAN WE”VE EVER BEEN!

  1. Why do you have a photograph of Jeff Viken without a caption? Why is Judge Viken’s photograph placed so prominently in an article about Judge Davis’ illegal actions?

    This article is getting shared a lot on Facebook with the photograph. It gives the impression that Jeff Viken is the bad guy.

    Please post a picture of Judge Davis instead. And please consider an apology to Judge Viken.

  2. This is and always will be ignored. Who let these Human Beings go on like this so long? What’s going to be done about it? Nothing. As a Human Being myself, I will continue to pray for all races.

  3. How many ways are there still today for American’s to be ashamed of America? This is bullshit and this judge needs to be removed and charged with violating the rights of these only true American people.

  4. So what are they going to do? Bet they just let him go on his merry way! Misuse of power! This judge should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law! They will never back us the Native People of this land. They don’t want us to grow in population or financially. Or great president(ya right) gave all tribes the right to grow hemp and the dea with the help of a circuit judge went in with an illegal warrant and destroyed their crop of industrial hemp(30,000+plants)! No matter what anyone says no one is backing us, bullshitting us yes! All they are worried about is over running the country with muslims! Seems like they want chaos! All I can say is stand your ground. Good luck everyone!

  5. No surprise here. I am an African-American truckdriver from Minnesota and know racism when I see it. It is deplorable how Native Americans are treated in South Dakota, surrounding states as well as in my home state. So much disrespect and socially excepted stereotypes of people of color. So long as ignorance, fear and stupidity rule it will always be a struggle. BTW, I have Native American in my lineage and I am very proud of it.

  6. The civil rights wrongdoings at South Dakota is only representative of what is being done at other parts of the country where systematic racial discrimination against Native Americans is rampant. I was a victim of that systematic racial discrimination in the U. S. Navy 1965-69 where I was stripped of my Sonar Technician rating to the deck force and rank E3 to E2 for being 30 minutes late in coming back to the boat (a minesweeper) one morning–a capital punishment usually reserved for major offenses like missing ship’s movement.

  7. There should be mention that the tribes own president was said to have supported this ideal of being excluded from their civil rights to serve on a jury. The tribe has systematically been discriminating on its own people as well.

  8. Or next order of Business should be to lobby President Obama to appoint qualified members of Federally Recognized Indian Tribes to the United States Federal District Court of Western South Dakota. Preferably a Lakota. Also, Appoint a qualified Lakota to the 3rd US Circuit. These are lifetime appointments. President Obama can level the playing field with such appointments and stack the bench for a generation.

  9. We all should lobby President Obama to have a Lakota appointed to the Federal Bench for the Western District of South Dakota and more importantly to the 3rd United State Circuit Court. It is time to level the playing field. The Northern Plains are fifty (50) years behind the times in defeating institutionalized racism and promoting Civil Rights. These are lifetime appointments.

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