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California Courts Innovate: Tribal/State Programs

Jenny WalkerBy Jenny Walter, JD

In 2009, the Judicial Council established, as part of the Center for Families, Children & the Courts (CFCC), a Tribal/State Projects Unit.1The 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.

The need for this collaboration has been growing. In the 2010 census, roughly 725,000 California citizens identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, more than in any other state.2 This represents roughly 14 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 110 federally recognized tribes,3 with nearly 100 separate reservations or rancherias.4 In addition, there are currently 81 groups petitioning for federal recognition.5 As sovereign tribes, they have the authority to establish their own justice systems. There are now 23 tribal courts, up from nine just ten years ago 6, and the number is growing. These courts serve approximately 40 of the 110 tribes. The increase in the number of tribal courts, and the legal complexity of jurisdiction, also 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/State Projects Unit staffs the Tribal Court-State Court Forum,7 provides comprehensive services on the Indian Child Welfare Act for judges, attorneys, and lay advocates,8 provides services on the impact of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, trafficking, elder abuse and stalking on tribal communities,9 and maintains a clearinghouse of information on California’s tribal communities10 and tribal justice systems.11 Staffed by two attorneys, one cultural broker, and one part-time administrative coordinator, this unit responds to inquiries from local tribal and state courts on a wide range of inter-jurisdictional issues, and promotes collaboration among them.

These efforts have brought benefits,12 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 through programs such as cross-court cultural exchanges, judicial education, multi-disciplinary trainings, local on-going court coordinated community response to Indian child welfare cases,13 State/Tribal Educational Partnerships and Services (S.T.E.P.S.) to Justice- domestic violence,14 and S.T.E.P.S. to Justice- child welfare; 
  • Implementation of policies reflected in legislative, rule and form, local protocol changes, and technological advances in order to achieve recognition and enforcement of each other’s court orders, thus preventing confusion and reducing costs;
  • Promotion of innovative strategies to improve access to justice, such as the joint jurisdictional court of the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians and the local state court in El Dorado County;15 and
  • Sharing of educational and other resources through the forum’s electronic newsletter, Forum E-Update 16, and meetings.17

State and tribal justice systems have a great deal of experience to share and much to learn from each other. In California, the state judicial system and tribal justice systems work jointly to solve problems that they both face. The Tribal/State Projects Unit will continue to facilitate cooperation and collaboration between the state courts and tribal courts to promote the highest quality of justice and service for California’s Native American communities, and to address areas of mutual concern to tribal and state courts. The staff of this unit is available to other jurisdictions wishing to establish or reestablish a forum, and always welcomes the opportunity to learn from other forums. The Tribal/State Projects Unit is supported exclusively with grant funds from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, (administered through the California Office of Emergency Services), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Court Improvement Program, and the California Department of Social Services.


 1 See

2 See  

3 See  

4 Note that some tribes remain “landless” meaning they have no land in trust for their members, while other tribes may have more than one reservation or rancheria.

5 As of November 12, 2013. See  

6 See  

7 For more information about this forum, see article by Judge Richard C. Blake and Justice Dennis M. Perluss, “Tribal  Court State Court Forum.”

8 See  

9 See  

10 See  

11 See  

12 For more information about the benefits and strategic approach used by tribal and state judicial leaders to bring about systemic changes to help the people they serve, see article by Judge Richard C. Blake and Justice Dennis M. Perluss.

13 For more information about these partnerships, see Innovative Knowledge Center, an online database featuring tribal/state partnerships ( and articles by Judge Amy Pellman.

14 See 

15 For more information, see article by Judge Suzanne Kingsbury and Judge Christine Williams and

16 See  

17 See Services’ Court Improvement Program, and the California Department of Social Services.

About the Author
Jennifer Walter, JD, is supervising attorney for the California Judicial Council Center for Families, Children & the Courts, Tribal/State Programs Unit. One of her responsibilities is serving as lead counsel to the California Tribal Court−State Court Forum, a statewide coalition of tribal and state court judges, appointed by the California Chief Justice and Tribal Leaders to identify issues concerning the working relationships between tribal and state courts in California.

Ms. Walter has served in other capacities at the staff agency for the Judicial Council, including supervisor of the following programs: Court Appointed Special Advocate and other juvenile programs and counsel to the Family and Juvenile Law Advisory Committee. Before joining the staff agency for the Judicial Council in 1995, she was directing attorney of Legal Advocates for Children and Youth in San Jose, a nonprofit law office, providing direct services using teams of attorneys and social workers. After graduating from the University of San Francisco School of Law in 1988, Ms. Walter became staff attorney at Legal Services for Children in San Francisco. Before becoming an attorney, she ran two programs in the New York City public schools, one for high school drop-outs and another aimed at increasing S.A.T. scores and college admission rates. Ms. Walter was admitted to the California State Bar in 1988 and received her bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1982. Ms. Walter is a commissioner on the San Mateo County LGBTQ Commission. Ms. Walter lives with her wife, Deb Hedger, and their daughter in Half Moon Bay, California.


The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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