Mashantucket — On a day the Mashantucket Pequots marked the start of Native American Heritage Month, its tribal court opened for business Friday in new quarters in the tribe's Public Safety Building.
Tribal Chairman Rodney Butler said the convergence of the two events was appropriate.
"One thing that is key to our sovereignty is an independent tribal court system," Butler told tribal officials, court employees and guests who gathered in a new courtroom. "And now it's official. We have a permanent courthouse."
Court staff joked that they'd been promised more space ever since the court opened in "temporary" quarters elsewhere on the tribe's reservation in 1992, the same year the tribe's Foxwoods Resort Casino debuted.
Andrew Cannon, the court's family-relations officer, and Paul Mitchell, the bailiff, agreed the new location would further enhance the well-respected court's reputation.
"It gives us a little more professionalism," Cannon said.
"A lot more," Mitchell added.
Chief Judge Thomas Londregan, one of the two trial judges who handle the court's caseload, called Friday's dedication of the new location "a momentous occasion." He said the Mashantuckets always had a judicial system, with the tribe's chief rendering decisions in the days before the court was established.
"I remember (former Chairman) Skip Hayward saying, at the time, 'I have a lot on my plate,'" Londregan said. "Hayward and the tribal council asked me to come along …"
Londregan and Edward O'Connell, the other trial judge, have been with the court since it began.
"It's a great day for tribal justice," Londregan said.
He and O'Connell held opposite ends of a ribbon that tribal Secretary Marjorie Colebut-Jackson cut with a pair of oversized scissors.
O'Connell said the court's new facilities "demonstrate the tribe's commitment to the rule of law."
Several judicial figures were on hand, including state Superior Court Judge Emmet Cosgrove, administrative judge for the New London Judicial District, and Judge Jeffrey McNamara of the Mohegan Tribe's court system. Cosgrove delivered greetings from Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers of the state Supreme Court, who stressed the role adequate facilities play in the judicial process.
The new location will provide more space for lawyers and their clients to meet privately, Londregan said.
"That's basically it," he said. "More space for people to operate — and an improvement in the quality of the space."
The court primarily handles civil disputes involving Foxwoods as well as family matters involving tribal members. Some 130 civil cases have been filed in the court so far this year, according to Jennifer Apes, the court clerk.
In the first official business in the new location, Londregan administered oaths to two attorneys who are the most recent to join the court's bar association — Amanda Morris of the Gasser Law Firm in Avon and Kim McGee of Brown, Jacobson in Norwich.
Prior to the ribbon-cutting, tribal officials marked the start of Native American Heritage Month with a ceremony at Foxwoods.
State Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, a champion of the legislation that led to the month's designation in Connecticut, said special events scheduled throughout the month would highlight the contributions that American Indian tribes have made.
The Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center also plans special events and exhibits during November.