Tribal Projects Unit

Innovations in the California Courts - 20 of Years of Great Ideas

Connecting the Court to the Community: Tribal Courts

In 2009, the Administrative Office of the Courts established, as part of the Center for Families, Children & the Courts (CFCC), a Tribal Projects Unit. The purpose of this unit is to act as a liaison between the state justice system and the tribal communities and justice systems in California, in order to improve the California Native American community’s access to justice and strengthen the working relationship between the state and tribal justice systems.

Tribal Court/State Court Judges Meeting held on December 21, 2009.The need for this collaboration has been growing. According to the 2000 census, more than 600,000 American Indian and Alaskan Native citizens reside in California in both rural and urban communities— more than in any other state except Alaska. This represents roughly 13 percent of the entire American Indian/Alaska Native population of the United States. California contains approximately 600,000 acres of “Indian county” in more than 100 separate parcels scattered throughout the state. This territory is home to 107 federally recognized tribes, with another 74 tribes in the process of applying for federal recognition. As sovereign tribes, they have the authority to establish their own justice systems. There are now 17 tribal courts, up from just 7 a few years ago, and the number is growing. These courts serve approximately 30 of the 107 tribes.

The increase in the number of tribal courts, and the legal complexity of jurisdiction, points up the need for greater understanding and collaboration between the state courts and the tribal courts. To increase understanding and build trust, the Tribal Projects Unit has produced educational curricula, a webinar, and other bench tools for judges on federal Indian law. The unit has also created a clearinghouse that provides access to resources, responds to inquiries by local courts on a wide range of tribal issues, and supports collaboration between state and tribal courts.

These efforts have already begun to bring benefits to local courts, such as: 

  • An understanding of the common interest shared by state and tribal courts and the people they serve; 
  • Increased collaboration between state and tribal courts to address interjurisdictional challenges; 
  • Sharing of educational and other resources; 
  • Progress on the recognition and enforcement of each other’s court orders, thus preventing confusion and reducing costs; and 
  • The capacity to share information on criminal history and each other’s protective orders. This sharing reduces the possibility of conflicting orders, ensures that judicial officers have the information they need to make informed decisions, and provides law enforcement officers with the information they need to protect the public.

State and tribal justice systems have a great deal of experience to share and much to learn from each other. The two systems need to work jointly to solve problems that they both face. The Tribal Projects Unit will continue to facilitate cooperation and collaboration between the state courts and tribal courts in order to ensure the highest quality of justice and service for California’s Native American communities.

The Tribal Projects Unit is supported exclusively with grant funds from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. These funds are administered through the California Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Court Improvement Program, and the California Department of Social Services. 66 innoa courts


The Tribal Projects Unit supports the Tribal Court/State Court Forum. The forum, established by former Chief Justice Ronald M. George and continued by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, comprises both tribal court judges and state court judges and justices. The forum makes policy recommendations to the Judicial Council on issues relating to the recognition and enforcement of court orders that cross jurisdictional lines, the determination of jurisdiction for cases that might appear in either court system, and the sharing of services between jurisdictions.

In 2008–2009, the Native American Communities Justice Project brought together more than 500 Native Americans and California court personnel to hear the voices of Native American victims of family violence. This assessment, conducted by the CFCC, reported that tribal protective orders were not being uniformly and consistently enforced, leaving victims at risk of being revictimized. The forum identified the following two solutions to these issues:

California Courts Protective Order Registry. In August 2011, the Tribal Projects Unit worked with the AOC’s Information Services Division to launch a pilot program that provides tribal courts with read-only access to the California Courts Protective Order Registry (CCPOR). By sharing information on restraining and protective orders, state courts and tribal courts are better able to protect the public, particularly victims of domestic violence. 

Efficient and consistent procedures. A proposed statewide rule will establish an efficient and consistent statewide procedure for California state courts to register protective orders issued by tribal courts in California. The proposed rule is on the Judicial Council’s consent agenda and, if adopted, will become effective January 1, 2012.

Tribal Projects Unit

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