Imperial County: Notable Tribal Court/State Court Collaborative Efforts

Judge Juan Ulloa and Judge Claudette WhiteBy Judge Juan Ulloa and Judge Claudette White

As we think about it, our professional relationship started in 2004 during the California Child and Family Services Review County Self-Assessment (CSA). At that time, the county Department of Social Services (DSS) and Quechan Social Services had a positive working relationship. Tribal and county social workers were engaged in informal mentoring around Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) cases. The Quechan Tribe was an active member of the CSA team. But there was little or no collaboration between the tribal court and the juvenile court other than the attendance at state court by a tribal representative at initial and ongoing court hearings for families. DSS also had three social workers designated as tribal liaisons who were the only social workers assigned to these cases.

In the early stages of developing the Imperial County Blue Ribbon Commission to collaborate around serving children and families in the child welfare system, the Quechan Tribe was not a participant. That all changed when the state court issued a no contact order in a juvenile case that conflicted with a tribal court order that had been issued in the same case. We realized that we needed each other and could serve Quechan children and families better if we worked together. Over time, we developed protocols for coordinating, transferring, and monitoring cases that involved Quechan families. It was through this work on behalf of children and families that we came to have the utmost respect for one another and our respective justice systems. While both of our courts uphold the rule of law, the Quechan Tribal Court does so in the context of traditional tribal values. Getting justice partners to understand that we are all in this together has enabled us to improve not only how our courts function, but how tribal and non-tribal court-connected services can be leveraged for the benefit of our citizens.

Our collaboration took off in May 2009 when we both attended the statewide meeting of the Native American Communities Justice Project – Beginning the Dialogue, a California Judicial Council project which brought together tribal, state and local stakeholders and justice partners from throughout the state to discuss family violence in tribal communities and develop collaborative strategies to effectively address these issues. For example, using the judicial power of the robe, we convened a meeting with law enforcement around issues relating to the Violence Against Women Act. Focusing on public safety concerns and with input from local law enforcement agencies, we made positive changes: the Imperial County Superior Court changed its calendar, scheduling misdemeanor court hearings on the reservation, in Winterhaven, once a month. In addition to enhancing public safety by reducing the patrol hours lost processing and booking failure to appear warrants from the main state courthouse in Calexico, the state court and county law enforcement realized substantial savings by eliminating the revolving door of missed court appearances caused by the lack of public transportation. Our collaboration is rather modest, really little more than mutual respect and a willingness to look for intersecting interests. We admire each other as leaders for justice, but more importantly, we recognize each other as equal partners in fulfilling our judicial responsibilities and meeting the needs of Quechan citizens who live in Imperial County. When communication is open and interests aligned, creative tribal/state partnerships organically develop. We know this through our local collaborative work, and our work statewide on the California Tribal Court-State Court Forum. We list here some of the positive outcomes that have flowed from our local collaboration and that of our respective justice partners:

  • Collaboration around self-help services for unrepresented litigants;
  • Collaboration around court appointed special advocates (resulting in two CASA programs—tribal and non-tribal—where all volunteers are sworn in by both courts and can follow the child when the case is transferred from one court to the other)
  • Protocols around probation services to better meet the needs of Quechan children regardless of whether their cases are heard in tribal or state court;
  • Collaborating with local law enforcement to provide education on P.L. 280 and the full faith and credit provisions of the Violence Against Women Act;
  • Protocols around the recognition and enforcement of tribal protective orders;
  • Cross-court cultural exchange on tribal lands bringing together the courts and all justice partners;
  • Other educational events on topics relating to child welfare, educational rights, and law enforcement;
  • Increasing the number of Quechan foster families through recruitment and criminal expungement efforts; and
  • Parents’ counsel in state court serves as the Quechan Tribal Court’s pro tem judge.

In conclusion, we continue to find new ways of working together and finding ways for our two justice systems to complement one another for the benefit of the citizens we serve.

About the Authors
Hon. Juan Ulloa, the recipient of the 2012 Judge Benjamin Aranda III Access to Justice Award presented by the California Judicial Council, the California State Bar Association, and the California Judges Association. Judge Ulloa has served as a Superior Court Judge in Imperial County since 1995. He has presided over every type of case, including juvenile dependency and delinquency, family law, civil, and criminal assignments two terms as Presiding Judge, and three terms as Presiding Judge of the Juvenile and Family Court.

He serves on the California State Court-Tribal Court Forum. He has been a leader in court reform efforts and in the establishment of the ongoing collaborative relationship between the Superior Court of Imperial County, The Quechan Tribal Court, the Family Court of Baja California in Mexicali, Mexico, and the Mexican Consulate in Calexico, California. He helped to establish Court Appointed Special Advocates of Imperial County, which has been serving dependent children since 1997.

He was instrumental in the establishment of the Imperial County Peer Court for first-time, nonviolent minor offenders, and Rite Track Evening Learning Center, providing intensive treatment and intervention for moderate to high risk offenders to prevent out of home placement that has become a national model. Before his election, Judge Ulloa served as juvenile Court Referee for 2 years. He had extensive experience as court-appointed counsel for parents and children in dependency and delinquency courts. Judge Ulloa was an attorney and directing attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance from 1975 until 1982. A child of farm workers, Judge Ulloa received Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and Mexican-American Studies from the University of California, Riverside in 1972, and his Juris Doctor from UCLA in 1975.

Judge Claudette White, Chief Judge of the Quechan Tribal Court
Judge White was appointed to the position of Chief Judge for the Quechan Tribal Court on May 05, 2006 and then reappointed by the Quechan Tribal Council for a second term beginning May 2010.  Her undergraduate studies were completed at Arizona Western College in Yuma, Arizona and Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where she earned her Bachelors of Science in Criminal Justice, being the first from her family to graduate from college. While in attendance there, she also minored in Sociology.

Judge White attended the Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona where she earned her Juris Doctorate and a Special Certificate in Indian Law in 2005.  She has also attended and completed the Limited Jurisdiction Judges Orientation education requirements for Arizona Judges which was facilitated by the Arizona Judicial College.

Judge White is an enrolled member of the Quechan Indian Tribe and also descends from the Cocopah and Digueno Mission Indian Tribes of California and Arizona. She has resided on the Quechan Indian Reservation located in Ft. Yuma, California, almost her entire life, only leaving for periods of time so that she could pursue her education. She has one son, (Zion) age (14) and enjoys spending time with him and her family.   


Judge White’s early exposure to the Tribal Court Systems was during her tenure on the Quechan Tribal Council when they were developing the Quechan Tribal Court in 1995. She served on the Quechan Tribal Council from 1995-1998 and claims the honor of being one of the youngest members ever elected. It was after her involvement there that she began practicing as a legal advocate in the Quechan Tribal Court.


Judge White has been licensed to work in multiple tribal jurisdictions including the Fort McDowell Indian Community, Ak-Chin Indian Community,  Quechan Tribal Court, Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, and Tonto Apache Tribal Courts.  Judge White also has served as a Judge Pro tem for the Appellate/Trial Divisions of the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community Court,  in the Trial Division of the Tonto Apache Indian Tribal Court and in the Trial Division of the San Carlos Apache Tribal Court.


Currently Judge White is active with the Arizona Indian Judges Association. Additionally she is also an appointed member of the Arizona Tribal, State & Federal Court Forum, which serves the State of Arizona. She is also an active member of California’s Tribal Court-State Court Forum. She has also served as faculty for the South West Indigenous Woman’s Coalition Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) training program and has been invited faculty for the Arizona Bar Association’s Leadership Series.

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