Free speech for Patty

The woman accused of criminal defamation wins her case before trial

Patty Hicks, accompanied by her 84-year-old father, Clarence B. Williams, leaves the tribal courtroom in Schurz after winning her case against criminal defamation.

Patty Hicks, accompanied by her 84-year-old father, Clarence B. Williams, leaves the tribal courtroom in Schurz after winning her case against criminal defamation.

Photo By David Robert

Patty Hicks was unsure of what to expect when she appeared on Monday for a pre-trial hearing at the tribal court on the Walker River Paiute reservation, 100 desolate miles southeast of Reno. At her arraignment on Jan. 9, she had made a motion to dismiss, and the judge had given the prosecutor 10 days to reply, but she had received nothing from the court.

“In white man’s court,” she said, “an unanswered motion would be grounds for dismissal just by itself.”

But this is the Walker River Paiute tribe’s court. The peculiarity of the proceedings probably had as much to do with that as with the oddity of the charges. Hicks was accused of criminal defamation—essentially lying about someone in a way that hurts their reputation.

The tribal courtroom is dreary by any definition and informal to anyone who’s more accustomed to big city courtrooms. The walls are buff-colored paneling (on one spot, bleached where someone unsuccessfully tried to remove green magic marker), some of the horizontal blinds are purple, some off white. The patched low-pile carpet could best be described as dusty rose.

On one wall, there is a large, metal safe door, a holdover from 100 years ago when the building was the old tribal council hall; on another, an unframed poster about domestic violence. Other than the purely utilitarian exit and fire extinguisher signs, an American flag, 30-some brown folding chairs, two folding tables and the judge’s desk, there is little in the room to distinguish it from any other bureaucratic box designed to hold people.

That’s not to say the poor circumstances led to poor justice. While the surroundings and proceedings seemed irregular, the events had the ring of fairness.

Hicks had circulated a petition calling for the recalls of Tribal Chairwoman Victoria Guzman and Water Department official Elveda Martinez among members of the tribe. She accused Guzman and Martinez of unethical and illegal behavior.

Approached at her office to discuss the case, Guzman hid behind an open door and told an assistant she was unavailable for an interview. At deadline, Martinez did not return a phone call for comment.

Hicks had attached the recall petitions to an e-mail that read in part, “I am attaching 2 petitions to recall our corrupt tribal council members. Between the tribal chairperson and her husband, they are drawing $100,000 per year in wages from tribal coffers. The administration is only catering to their family, friends and themselves and forgot about the membership. The 2 people on the petitions just got into office last year and if they are not recalled, we will have to endure 2 more years of their corruption. … As far as I’m concerned, they should be in prison for raping our tribe… .”

The e-mail got a warrant sworn against Hicks by Martinez.

In the hearing, prosecutor Joaquin Roces asked for more time to answer Hicks’ motion to dismiss. He was particularly concerned about whether the e-mail originated off the reservation, since that might put the case outside of the tribe’s jurisdiction.

Tribal court judge Gene O’Brien, however, had other issues. He grilled both Hicks and Roces on the circumstances regarding the e-mail. O’Brien saw it as a First Amendment issue—since the e-mail was attached to the recall petitions, it was plainly political speech, possibly the most unassailable kind of speech in the United States.

“I’m dismissing this case because this e-mail of Oct. 3 is protected,” he said. “It is a statement made while furthering her rights [to participate in government].”

The small crowd briefly applauded at the verdict.

The case didn’t end with the crack of the gavel. Hicks said the issues of money accepted from the federal government for Walker Dam improvements and money for a new senior center remain unresolved. She still wants a fraud audit of the tribe’s books. She also said that there will be no justice done until the tribal council acts on her petition. She said the tribal council has refused to say whether they’ve accepted it and won’t respond to her e-mails. She can’t redo the petition until the council says why they won’t accept the signatures, if in fact, they have not.

“We’re still going forward,” the 60-year-old great grandmother said. “According to our Constitution, we have five days to appeal when a petition is denied. They won’t respond. I guess I’ll write another letter.”

Her daughter, Stacy Swiftbird, 39, who was present in the court with a sign that read, “We have no rights on the rez,” said the decision was more important than the simple dismissal of a charge designed to stifle the free exchange of political ideas.

“It did set one precedent," she said. "I think it sets the precedent that we do have freedom of speech on the reservation."