THE TULALIP TRIBAL COURT OF APPEALS
TULALIP INDIAN RESERVATION
IDM Financial, LLC, Appellant/Plaintiff,
Jay Napeahi & Misty Williams, Appellees/Defendants.
No. TUL-Ci-7/97-862 (July 28, 1998)
Before: Larry King, Chief Justice; Rose E. Purser, Justice; Charles R. Hostnik, Justice.
The basic issue before this Court on appeal concerns the responsibility of unrepresented parties in tribal court proceedings. Neither of the parties to this proceeding was represented by an attorney or a spokesperson. It is a general notion that when unrepresented persons appear in any court, they are held to the standards of an attorney. They are to be familiar with the rules of the court and the procedures to be followed in handling cases before that particular court.
Proceedings in tribal court are more relaxed simply because there is a higher percentage of persons appearing in court without legal representation. It is the role of the trial judge to efficiently move the proceedings along, while allowing parties an opportunity to fully present their cases. The trial judge cannot possibly know what is in the mind of a party, or what evidence supports a party’s position, until that evidence comes out in court. It is therefore appropriate that the basic responsibility for preparing and presenting a case is with each of the parties before the court.
IDM contends that the trial judge should have made the record more clear and forced it to answer the point blank question, “Do you want a continuance?” The trial judge discharged this responsibility when he asked IDM whether they were prepared to proceed on the countersuit, which was admittedly served on them as they walked into the courtroom on October 21,1997. As pointed out by the Appellees, when the IDM representatives responded, “We would like to continue with our suit first . . . ” that implies not only were they willing to proceed on the counterclaim, but they wanted to proceed on the suit as a whole. IDM contends that this is not what they meant, but only IDM knew that. It is therefore appropriately IDM’s responsibility to clarify its position.
IDM indicates it had never been countersued previously. They thought that the court would conduct proceedings on the suit first, and then grant a continuance to conduct separate proceedings on the countersuit. The parties admit that the evidence on the suit and countersuit was intertwined. IDM was simply unfamiliar with normal court procedures in such circumstances. IDM chose to file suit in this Court. It is the responsibility of IDM to know the procedures and rules of the court in which it chose to file suit.
IDM is a corporation. A corporation cannot be represented pro se, but must have someone else represent it. Mr. Marzolf, when he appeared before the Tulalip Tribal Court representing IDM, was acting as its spokesperson. Part of being a spokesperson is the responsibility to be familiar with tribal laws and the rules and procedures of court.
Mr. Marzolf stated at oral argument that at the conclusion of the October 21 proceeding he was thoroughly confused as to what had transpired during the course of that proceeding. However, he did not indicate to the trial judge that he was confused, nor did he request clarification of whether another court date would be scheduled for the counterclaim. He simply left the courtroom.
The trial judge reasonably relied upon IDM’s assertion that it wanted to proceed with its case despite the fact it had just received the counterclaim. At no time did IDM request a continuance or another court date for testimony concerning the counterclaim, nor did IDM at any time indicate that it was unprepared to answer the allegations in the counterclaim. If IDM had requested a continuance, good cause certainly existed to grant such a request.
In certain situations, requiring parties appearing before a court to be held to the standards of any attorney or spokesperson may lead to harsh results. However, any other standard would create chaos in the court system and would require a judge to assist a party in presenting its case. Although a judge should take reasonable steps to insure that fair proceedings occur and to ensure that all parties have an opportunity to present their evidence, a judge cannot assist a party in presenting his or her case. The trial judge acted reasonably under the circumstances of this case and therefore, did not commit error.
ANY ERROR WAS HARMLESS
Even if we assume that error was committed by the trial judge, such error was harmless. After extensive questioning by the appellate panel, IDM representatives indicated that if they had been allowed an opportunity to present evidence on the counterclaim, the only evidence they would have presented was the testimony of Detective Lee, and that the purpose of such testimony would be to show that the Defendants did not suffer any damages in this case. Remanding this case for that purpose would not further the interests of justice, as IDM had the opportunity to present Detective Lee in the damages portion of this case which occurred on January 22, 1998. In fact, they stated at oral argument that they presented a written statement of Detective Lee on January 22, which was reviewed by the court. IDM representatives indicated they were not aware they could have had Detective Lee subpoenaed to appear as a witness. If they had reviewed the court rules, they would have seen that this was possible. See Tulalip Tribal Court Rule 4.33.
Again, it is a party’s responsibility to present its case. The testimony of Detective Lee would only have been relevant as to damages. Any error was harmless because IDM had an opportunity to, and did, present evidence from that witness.
IDM has raised the claim that the trial judge acted inappropriately in allegedly giving legal advice to the Defendants at trial after the court had gone off the record. This allegation is based upon the transcript of October 14, 1997. At the end of that transcript the Defendants asked, “What do we do now?” The court replied, “Let’s go off the record.” Mr. Marzolf indicates that he left the courtroom at that point. He therefore does not know what was said by the trial judge to the Defendants, if anything. The Defendants indicate that the trial judge told them to seek legal advice. This is an entirely appropriate comment by the trial judge. IDM has no evidence, and no offer of proof upon which to base its assertion. There is no support in the record for that assertion by IDM. The Court therefore cannot find that this is a basis of error by the trial judge.
We therefore affirm the trial judge in all respects.
Chief Justice King and Justice Purser concur.