Every year, the Michigan Supreme Court accepts trial court innovation proposals with the goal of improving Michigan’s legal system. Washtenaw County District Court Judge Timothy Connors’ “Peacemaking Court” is one of five proposals that were approved for funding in 2014.
Peacemaking Courts are a form of “restorative justice.” Rooted in Native American traditions, Peacemaking Courts include communal healing and restoration as a crucial part of the trial court process. This millennia-old process is being implemented for the first time ever by the state of Michigan. As a follower of Native American principles, Judge Connors wants to see how these principles can be utilized in Michigan’s court systems.
Compared to the traditional courtroom within the United States, Peacemaking Courts are a revolutionary approach to understanding how to resolve disputes.
Rather than the literal top-down hierarchy of judges, lawyers, and witnesses, Peacemaking Courts create an even level of power dynamics so that a communal discussion can take place in order to help redirect people to a healthy relationship.
As Judge Connors explains, the Navajo word for hierarchy literally means “evil.” A peacemaking court creates a more level dynamic emphasizing the importance of creating a safe and equal space for all individuals involved in a dispute to voice their concerns. Without this space, hatred and resentment can pervade all sides involved.
Peacemaking courts are rooted in four “R’s” that guide its practice that apply to both the victim and the offender- 1) respect, 2) responsibility, 3) relationship, and 4) redirection.
Participating judges will refer cases to the peacemaking court team and assess their usability for the program. For its first year, the peacemaking court will be focusing on less severe cases in order to establish a framework for potentially controversial disputes.
Susan Butterwick, J.D., the project director for the peacemaking court, has had the opportunity to utilize peacemaking methods in and outside of the courtroom, including within the public school system. She mentions that, “The justice system is always looking back at what went wrong or what was done wrong. It looks at the evidence trying to figure [things] out and then exacting some kind of punishment for it. What I like about this system is that it’s forward-looking. It still has to fix what’s wrong and everyone has to decide an appropriate way to fix it [but] it looks forward the rest of the time and thinks about how the affected individuals are going to be reintegrated into the community.”
So far, two cases have been heard using the peacemaking method. Both have shown positive and effective results. Participants from the second case, which involved an estate dispute, admitted in thank you letters that initially they had their doubts about whether or not the peacemaking court would actually produce the result they wanted.
Nevertheless, Judge Connors mentioned that these letters thanked the court for allowing a space for everyone’s voice to be heard and for this matter to be handled with dignity.
Although they can be a very effective method of resolving court cases, the Peacemaking Court is not meant to be a complete substitute for the current system. Judge Connors stated that, “I want to make it clear: we do not want to replace the current system, but rather allow another type…and if people choose to resolve their differences in that way, a healthier way, certainly we should have the ability within state courts to allow it. If you choose the [peacemaking] path we have people committed to that path that can help you.”
Funding for the Peacemaking Court runs from Oct. 2013 through September 2014 and during this time Connors and his team will train litigators on how to work within the peacemaking process and produce learning materials to replicate these methods in courtrooms across the state.
One of the main contributors for these training sessions will be professional storyteller and ICPJ board member La’Ron Williams. His role is to help all participants involved understand the importance of storytelling in the midst of the restorative justice process. Williams mentioned that, “Each of the principles involved in the restorative justice process – the victim, the offender, and the community – must have the chance to share their stories in order for a healing to take place.”
As opposed to a traditional testimony from an individual dictated by lawyers and judges, stories in a Peacemaking Court are encouraged to be expressed on an individual basis.
The traditional system relies on paradigms characterized by punitive methods, a clear hierarchical structure, and an isolating of individuals. Peacemaking Courts can provide new paradigms where stories have the potential to teach us to be cooperative and communal.
Judge Connors expressed his gratitude for our Native American brothers and sisters and mentioned that, “Our humility and our gratitude is to just listen and absorb. The more we listen the more we realize we need to listen more.”