More than a year after the protests at Standing Rock were making national headlines, both pipeline protests and Native American activism continue to burden the state of North Dakota. The protest camps, which housed as many as 10,000 people at their height last summer, also led to thousands of arrests. While most of these people were quickly released on bail, they still need to be processed through the state’s court system. For months, this has been a strain on the state’s logistics. Last November, the state’s judiciary branch had to request additional money to cover the expenses, something unprecedented in the state’s history. In an attempt to ease the strain on state resources, North Dakota temporarily changed its rules, allowing out-of-state attorneys to come in to provide defense counsel for protestors. That program came under attack this fall, but the North Dakota Supreme Court has ruled again on the matter.
In January, the North Dakota Supreme Court approved a provision allowing out-of-state attorneys to assist in DAPL-related cases if they are sponsored by an attorney in the state. Nine months later, local judges petitioned the state’s supreme court, asking that relaxation in the rules be ended, since no new DAPL-related cases were being filed. The request reignited tensions between the protesters and state government.
The Water Protective Legal Collective, which has managed more than $3 million in funds donated to cover legal expenses, said that 159 cases still lacked representation or appointed counsel at the time of the announcement in September.
According to the Lakota People’s Law Project, more than 530 comments supporting out of state attorneys were submitted to North Dakota Supreme Court before its decision. The court’s written decision emphasized the importance of these comments in their deliberations.
“Setting aside the unhelpful comments promoting political views or attempting to interject arguments about a protest event, the comments we found most persuasive focused on the right to counsel, the due process of law and the practical difficulties being experienced as a result of the Dakota Access Pipeline-related protest arrests and court proceedings,” the decision said, before describing the termination of the provisions as “premature.”
However, the number of comments does not fully reflect the number of individual opinions presented. The comments reflect the interest that Standing Rock continues to attract from environmentalists even now that the camps have closed. North Dakota Supreme Court officials have stated that many of the comments were identical and others had been submitted from as far away as Germany and the United Kingdom.
The protesters have argued that the potential juror pool in the Mandan area has been tainted and that many area residents have a bias against the DAPL protests. Over the course of the protest, residents of Mandan frequently found downtown streets blocked off due to protest marches and were rerouted around certain highways and bridges for months on end.
To date, an additional 404 protesters are still awaiting trial. As the North Dakota courts work through the backlog of cases, many of the charges have been dropped. Still, protesters are looking to a recent court decision in Minnesota as potentially setting important precedent.
In northwestern Minnesota, environmental protesters and Native American activists are trying to stop the construction of the Enbridge 3 pipeline. A judge in Hubbard County ruled that two Washington women accused of trespassing on the Enbridge site could use a necessity defense at trial. Such a defense is used to shield a defendant by claiming that their offense was necessary in order to prevent a larger harm. Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston are accused of using bolt cutters to cut padlocks and chains to enter a pipeline facility, an act they recorded on video. The two argue that they had no choice but to disrupt the pipeline company’s transportation of tar sands oil as a means of taking action against climate change.