Showing the Way: Tribal and State Court Systems Unite to Ensure Best Practices and Solid Relationships

By: Eric Abeita | Intern
Theodore J. Griswold | Partner |

Judicial interface between Tribal Court systems and other courts can be a challenge; however, there are ways to smooth the relationship and learn from one another.  In 2006, the New Mexico Supreme Court recognized the Tribal-State Judicial Consortium as one of its advisory committees.  The Consortium previously existed for many years, and was founded to strengthen the relationships between State and Tribal Courts; however it was underutilized.  Not so any longer.  Currently seven Tribal judges and seven State judges, along with several alternates, serve on the committee.  They deal with complex jurisdictional issues between the two court systems and promote general goodwill and rapport between the judges.

The Consortium has worked to develop a judicial bench card and best practices in regard to the Indian Child and Welfare Act (ICWA).  It has also worked to implement Full Faith and Credit between the court systems, and has courageously tackled the barriers of State Court recognition of Tribal Court orders.  The Consortium continues to have great success in addressing jurisdictional and sovereignty issues between State and Tribal Courts.  This has required both work and perseverance. For many years, State Court judges were uneasy with recognizing Tribal Courts as their peers, and to this day there is still uneasiness with some State judges.  However, with dedication and hard work the Consortium has greatly increased cooperation and communication between the Court systems and has helped to establish New Mexico Tribal Courts as Full Faith and Credit Courts in the state.

Several other law students and I began learning about the important work the Consortium was doing when we started attending their quarterly meetings in 2013.  We began attending the meetings as we all served as editors on the Tribal Law Journal at the University of New Mexico School of Law.  Part of our responsibility at the Journal is to annually update the Tribal Court Handbook, which is a catalog of contact information, court rules, and court members of the various Tribal Courts in New Mexico.  We thought by attending the Consortium meetings we could get direct contact with Tribal Judges which would aid in updating the Handbook.  We were welcomed warmly and invited to attend further general and committee meetings of the group, which we most graciously did.  We are now working with the Consortium to develop a Tribal Law Journal liaison.   This law student will be responsible for attending Consortium meetings and reporting back to the Journal.  It is these types of relationships that the Consortium is so good at fostering, and a major reason why it has been so successful.

While other types of coalitions exist throughout the country, the New Mexico Tribal-State Judicial Consortium is a model for many states to follow.  By attending the meetings, I saw first hand that the focus was not on whether the state or tribal system was “right”, but how to come to a solution was possible while showing mutual respect and a shared understanding of each other.  In many instances in American-Tribal relations, problems arise because of a lack of understanding of each other’s values, cultures and laws.  If there is a greater understanding of these backdrops from which the parties are working, the foundation is laid for these two systems to work together and respect each other’s sovereignty and jurisdictional authority.  Hopefully more states will follow the Consortium’s work and will have the same or even greater success it has had.


PROVIDE INFORMATION — Are you considering a custody case involving an Indian child?  Do orders of protection or child support orders from other jurisdictions come to your court for enforcement?  Did another area’s law enforcement officers pursue a suspect into your jurisdiction?  Issues like these – crossing jurisdictions – are the focus of the New Mexico Tribal-State Judicial Consortium.  By establishing local relationships and communications between the Courts, conflicts and cases can better be resolved.

DEVELOP RELATIONSHIPS — Quarterly Consortium meetings offer briefings by subject matter experts who can address situations involving cross-jurisdictional issues, such as extradition, and provide an opportunity for discussion among Tribal and State Judges about issues and cases generally.  The Consortium also promotes relationships and communications by conducting regional training events to help the Courts learn more about the challenges they encounter and begin working together to address them.  It also provides opportunities for Tribal Judges to attend State judicial conferences.

COLLABORATE — Growing out of a subcommittee of the Court Improvement Project on child welfare several years ago, the Consortium was formally recognized by the New Mexico Supreme Court as one of its advisory committees in 2006.  Equal numbers of Tribal and State Judges represent the various Pueblos, Tribes, and levels of New Mexico Courts on the Consortium.  These fourteen members, with the assistance of three alternate members, offer a forum to help raise awareness among the Courts about jurisdictional matters.

OUTREACH — The Consortium is currently concentrating on projects involving the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), full faith and credit/comity, and improving outreach and communications with the Courts.  Anyone interested in Tribal/State collaboration is welcome to attend our meetings.  The Consortium has been recognized for its efforts in outreach and collaboration by the National Criminal Justice Association.

Eric Abeita is a member of the Isleta Pueblo and is entering his third year at the University of New Mexico School of Law. Eric is a recipient of the 2014 Procopio Native American Internship.

Ted is head of the Native American Law practice group and primary editor for the Blogging Circle. Connect with Ted at and 619.515.3277.