Innovative Collaborative Court in California

Judge Suzanne KinsburryChristine WilliamsBy Judge Suzanne Kingsbury (L) and Judge Christine Williams (R)

Some people might think that the local state court in El Dorado County and the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians are unlikely partners to have launched a first of its kind joint jurisdictional court, which is designed to address the needs of children and families by bringing together tribal and county services in one unified proceeding. Given the longstanding history of conflict between county government and tribal government in California, a tribal court judge and state court judge hearing cases together on the Shingle Springs reservation, and when appropriate, at the county courthouse (located a few miles away), is a welcome advance. We hope that this collaborative model will inspire more local-tribal partnerships across the state and the nation.

What unifies the two courts, and at the heart of this joint-jurisdictional model, are families. We are seeing multiple generations of our children who are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, however, we have a vision that will forge a new path for our families. The Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians community has been severely affected by cultural, historical and intergenerational trauma which has taken place during centuries of exposure to racism, warfare, violence, and catastrophic disease. Intergenerational trauma occurs when the trauma of an event is not resolved and is subsequently internalized, being passed from one generation to the next due to ineffective interventions. This court, named the Family Wellness Court aims to break the school to prison cycle of dysfunctional behavior by setting achievable goals for children and families, supporting them to make positive life choices and giving them a true connection to their tribal history and culture, all the while celebrating with them as they improve their self-confidence and become leaders in their community, inspiring others to join them in breaking the cycle.

The Family Wellness Court hears a wide range of cases, including; juvenile (law violations or status offenses), child welfare (dependency), domestic violence (as part of a dependency, child custody, protective order petition), family, and criminal. Typically, the state court and the tribal court would hear these cases separately from one another, often making conflicting orders, working at cross purposes or failing to address the entirety of the families’ issues in a holistic fashion. The Family Wellness Court aims to break down these impediments. As soon as a child or youth comes to the attention of tribal or county authorities (because the family is unstable and/or the child is at risk for substance abuse or behavior issues), the court can wrap the child and family with a multitude of tribal and county services especially designed to meet the needs of each family member. This approach maximizes the use of resources necessary to address the cultural, historical, and intergenerational traumas. The Family Wellness Court has been enthusiastically embraced by members of the tribal community, as well as members of the county as a whole. In its inaugural session on April 8, 2015, tribal members were provided with the option to participate in the Family Wellness Court in lieu of traditional state or tribal court sessions. All of the families referred to the Family Wellness Court have elected to participate in the process, even though that decision might require more effort. Tribal members realize that the court provides a safe and supportive environment that empowers children, youth (up to 24) and their families to work together with the treatment team and the court to effect positive change. Since the court is new, we cannot be sure of exact outcomes for families, but the tribal and nontribal community have high hopes that the court will reduce the number of children and youth entering juvenile detention centers; reduce recidivism; reduce the number of children and youth on probation; increase the number of children and youth who are actively engaged in cultural activities such as traditional ceremonial dance, song, drum, regalia making and language program; increase the number of children and youth who stay in mainstream schools (as opposed to the charter school); increase the number of youth who graduate from high school; and increase the number of youth who graduate from college.

In California, the two judges, Hon. Christine Williams, Chief Judge of the Shingle Springs Tribal Court, and Hon. Suzanne N. Kingsbury, Presiding Judge of the Superior Court El Dorado County, who created the court, are hoping to replicate it through the Tribal Court-State Court Forum.1 The forum, at its first meeting, made it a priority to learn about and replicate the first joint jurisdiction tribal-state court in the nation, the Leech Lake-Cass County Wellness Court. Thanks to a national grant for technical assistance from the Bureau of Justice Assistance of the federal Department of Justice, the mentorship of Judge Korey Wahwassuck and Judge John Smith, who started the first joint jurisdictional court, and with the assistance of the California Judicial Council, Judges Williams and Kingsbury are available to assist any tribal and state jurisdiction to follow suit.

About the Authors
Judge Suzanne Kingsbury was elected the Presiding Judge of the El Dorado County Superior Court in 1999, an assignment that will continue until at least December of 2016. She sits in Department Three of the court, which is located in South Lake Tahoe, where she presides over civil, criminal, juvenile, family, appellate and probate matters. She is the first woman to serve in the position of Superior Court judge in the county’s history, as well as being its first female presiding judge. For more information about the forum, see article by Judge Richard Blake and Judge Dennis Perluss in this issue.

Judge Kingsbury has been instrumental in the creation and expansion of innovative programs in El Dorado County. Through her efforts, a variety of services have been made available to self- represented litigants to provide them with the information that they need to successfully navigate the court system. Through collaboration with other justice system partners, Judge Kingsbury also brought El Dorado County its first juvenile and adult drug courts, mental health court and dependency mediation and drug courts and is collaborating with the Chief Judge of the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians to create California’s first joint jurisdictional court.

Since assuming the bench, Judge Kingsbury has served as a member of CJER’s Continuing Judicial Studies, Rural Courts and Presiding Judge and Court Executive Education Committees and the Continuing Judicial Studies, Cow Counties and California Judicial Administration Conference Planning Committees.

Judge Kingsbury graduated in 1981 from California State University in Sacramento after receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminal Justice. She received her Juris Doctorate degree from McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento in 1982. Judge Kingsbury served as a deputy district attorney for over five years. During her tenure with the office, she helped found the South Lake/El Dorado County Narcotics Task Force (SLEDNET) and began a vertical prosecution program for sexual assault and child abuse cases.

Judge Kingsbury has been married for over thirty years to her husband Jim Ammons, a retired law enforcement officer.

Judge Christine Williams, a member of the Yurok Tribe, certified in Indian Law, has spent her legal career focused on representing Tribes in a broad spectrum of tribal legal matters primarily Indian child welfare, tribal court development and cultural resource protection. She currently serves as the Chief Judge for the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians in El Dorado County. Judge Williams was instrumental in establishing the Family Wellness Court with the El Dorado County Superior Court. The Family Wellness Court is a joint-jurisdiction court which enables judges from both jurisdictions to work in concert to hear cases in one courtroom. This model is one of only two tribal court/state court joint-jurisdictional efforts across the country. Judge Williams has a long history of providing training and education on various areas of Indian law and history and continues to provide education to tribal youth, CASA of El Dorado County and as a guest lecturer. 

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