Skip to content
View Featured Image

Judge Dismisses Charges Against Water Protectors In The Interests Of Justice

In a historic ruling, a Minnesota judge dismissed all charges against three Native water protectors in the interests of justice.

In a moving memo that underscores binding treaties between the US and the Anishinaabeg, a Minnesota judge dismisses all remaining charges against native women water protectors Winona LaDuke, Tania Aubid and Dawn Goodwin for their peaceful and prayerful gathering in protest of Line 3.

To criminalize their behavior would be the crime.

– Judge Metzen

As three Native women Water Protectors prepared for trial next week in Aitkin County, Judge Leslie Metzen dismissed all remaining criminal charges against Winona LaDuke, Tania Aubid and Dawn Goodwin late Thursday afternoon, September 14, 2023.  The nearly three-year-old charges stemmed from a peaceful and prayerful gathering on the banks of the Mississippi River on ceded Anishinaabe land as Enbridge began construction of its Line 3 tar sands pipeline.  Joined by several dozen other Water Protectors, the three women wore ceremonial jingle dresses, and sang, danced, and prayed for the water as heavy construction equipment tore into the earth.  Law enforcement later targeted LaDuke, Aubid, and Goodwin through social media surveillance and charged them with a slew of misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor offenses.

In a landmark opinion, Judge Metzen powerfully set forth her reasons for exercising her discretion to dismiss all remaining charges in the interests of justice — stating in no uncertain words, “to criminalize their behavior would be the crime.”

In celebration of this historic ruling, LaDuke, Aubid, and Goodwin will hold a press conference along with their attorneys at 10:00 A.M. C.S.T. on Monday, September 18, 2023, via Zoom.  Selected language from Judge Metzen’s opinion follows, and copies of her order and memorandum are attached.

The defendants were acting in accordance with centuries of practice and tradition in seeking to protect the water on their Indigenous land.  At the final pretrial hearing on September 13, 2023, Goodwin’s defense attorney Joshua Preston implored the Court to exercise its discretion and act as a check against prosecutorial abuses that have criminalized Indigenous peoples for seeking to protect their homelands.  Preston compared the disparate treatment between the defendants and Enbridge, which received a single criminal charge and a negotiated dismissal announced the same day as the charge itself.  Preston connected the preferential treatment of extractive industry, despite ongoing harms, to a legacy of violent colonization.

Attorneys Claire Glenn, Frank Bibeau, and Jordan Kushner adopted Mr. Preston’s arguments on behalf of LaDuke and Aubid as well.  In her ruling, the judge cited the binding but often broken treaties between the United States and the Anishinaabeg people that have been signed regarding land cession:

“This Court finds that it is within the furtherance of justice to protect the defendants peacefully protesting to protect the land and water on the land addressed in these treaties by dismissing this action against all defendants.”

Text of Judge Metzen’s dismissal order

See full document here

“IN THE INTERESTS OF JUSTICE”, a phrase often spoken but rarely applied to defendants, the Iess powerful, the voiceless. The State is entitled to justice and the fair and impartial application of the law. I have no concern that the State, with its resources and power does not receive its share of justice in courtrooms throughout this state every day. I have spent nearly 40 years playing my part in our system of justice.

These cases and these 3 defendants in particular have awakened in me some deep questions about what would serve the interests of justice here. As a child growing up in the 50’s and 60’s what I learned about “Indians” came from TV shows about cowboys and Indians and in school where the Caucasian European view of the world and history was the only one discussed. In the last 20 years I have come to a broader understanding of what we, the now dominant culture, did to try to eradicate our indigenous neighbors. We moved them by force and power and violence off the land where they lived for thousands of years. To make peace, we signed treaties with them that promised many things they never received. When they had been forced to live within reservation boundaries, we stole their children; forced them to attend boarding schools where their language, long hair, spiritual beliefs, and contact with their families were forbidden. Many of them died from disease, violence, and some probably from a broken heart. I know only enough of this history to wonder how those of us in the “dominant culture” could ever have thought any of these actions were okay or justifiable.

I have a simple and rudimentary understanding of some of the beliefs and values of native people. Their reverence for the earth and what she provides; animals and fish to hunt and catch for food. Plants to gather from the forests for food and medicine. And wild rice, Mahnomen, the sacred food on this land that sustained them through the long harsh winters. Their practices in using these substances did not deplete the resources nor did they pollute the land, air, and water.

I have no expertise in the values and beliefs of the tribes that call Minnesota and Wisconsin home but respect and value their presence on this land. Tania Aubid, Dawn Goodwin, and Winona LaDuke are respected members of their tribes and Anishinaabe people. Their presence at various gatherings to protest the  construction by Enridge of the Line 3 pipeline was an expression of their heartfelt belief that the waters of Minnesota need to be protected from damage that could result from the pipeline. Their protest was expressed by performing a jingle dance and beating a drum. Their gathering may have briefly delayed construction, caused extra expense to law enforcement who came to clear their gatherings (much of which was reimbursed to Aitkin County by Enbridge), but the pipeline has been completed and is operating in spite of their efforts to stop it through peaceful protests.

This court also notes that in other counties across northern Minnesota many of the cases involving pipeline protestors were dismissed outright or continued for dismissal with a small fine and an admonition to not commit a same or similar offense. In the interests of justice the charges against these three individuals who were exercising their rights to free speech and to freely express their spiritual beliefs should be dismissed. To criminalize their behavior would be the crime.

Sign Up To Our Daily Digest

Independent media outlets are being suppressed and dropped by corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for our daily email digest before it’s too late so you don’t miss the latest movement news.