Collin Joins Family Court

 JudgeCollins 

By Nate Wisneski - Kalihwisaks (nwisnes@oneidanation.org) 

The transformation of the Oneida Judiciary system is in full swing with the hire of Robert Collins II as Family Court Judge.

After a multi-year vetting process the new court system was approved and established by the General Tribal Council (GTC) in January of this year.

The Oneida Appeals Commission (OAC) was created by the Administrative Procedures Act. The initial caseload for the OAC was personnel issues. As tribal law developed, the scope of the OAC grew to incorporate civil cases. The Oneida Judiciary phases out the OAC and expands the tribe’s law enforcing authority and strengthens sovereign rights.

The court will handle four chapters of the Oneida Code of Law covering divorce, annulments, legal separations, paternity, child support, child custody, placement, and visitation issues.

“Establishing fatherhood is important in terms of enrollment, benefits for the children and setting child support orders. Also, through paternity we can establish custody and physical placement orders to make sure we have a situation where the child is having meaningful time with both of the parents,” said Collins.

Judge Collins has begun hearing cases after being hired on September 5.

“I started familiarizing myself with the Oneida Code of Laws. Obviously, there are some differences in the state laws so I wanted to make sure I learned all of those. I then went through some training through the Oneida Child Support Agency. I also had the opportunity to do some training through Cultural Heritage, I found it very beneficial,” he said.

Collins II earned his Bachelors Degree in Sociology of Law, Crime, and Deviance from the University of Minnesota. He then graduated from Law School at the University of Wisconsin in 2003.

After law school Collins moved to Wauwatosa to begin his career.

“I did criminal defense work, juvenile work, and a little bit of family law for two years. After, I ended up working in Appleton dealing again with criminal defense work, juvenile, child welfare legal issues, and family law,” he said. “I left there in December of 2008 and in January of 2009 I started working for Brown County. I was Assistant Corporation Counsel prosecuting child welfare legal matters, termination of parental rights, and adult guardianship work. I did some mental health commitment work and I argued a case before Wisconsin Supreme Court on parental rights issue.”

With Collins’ experience he is fully aware of the challenges a family court setting presents.

“My goal is to be an impartial hearing officer who listens to the facts presented by both sides and comes up with a fair resolution that addresses the welfare of the child and the child’s best interest,” he said. “It’s difficult getting the two parents to try to resolve their differences and their personal issues aside to come up with a resolution that is best for everyone. One of the options we have at the Oneida Family Court that is different than the state that I think will be useful is the peacemaking system.”

Collins is very excited about the results peacekeeping can provide while avoiding litigation before the court.

“It empowers the individuals involved to come up with a solution that is on their terms. It gets away from both sides arguing against each other in court and the judge coming up with the decision. Peacekeeping comes up with a solution that they can leave with knowing that they agree to and they came up and going to work for them,” he said.

Once fully established and comfortable in his new position Collins would like to focus on the growth of the Guardian ad Litems within the tribe.

“They are individuals who represent the best interest of the child. They do an investigation and submit a report and make a recommendation as to what they feel is in the child’s best interest,” he said.

Along with professional pressure that a family court presents personal stress also mounts.

“I try to deal with that stress by not taking it home with me. I do that by playing sports and exercising. In the courtroom, to the best of my ability, my goal is to try to control those emotions by communicating to the parties that they are both going to get an opportunity to present their case. I want to try to get away from people arguing to each other and not to me and interrupting each other.  We want people to know they are there to argue their case to me and not continue their fight with each other,” said Collins.

Collins understands the importance and necessity of his position and court within the tribal structure.

“It’s important because of the different customs and traditions of the tribe that differ from what is applied in state court. As a sovereign nation it is important that the tribe have a venue to resolve disputes internally,” he said.