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San Manuel Band of Mission Indians opens its own tribal court

The Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2009 by David Kelley

More than 100 guests come to the reservation near San Bernardino to watch the swearing-in of judges, all of whom are of Indian ancestry. There are more than a dozen formal Indian courts in California.

The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians on Friday became the latest California tribe to open its own tribal court, designed to hear civil cases and give members a chance to mediate disputes within their own culture.

"This is a historic day for the tribe as we constitute the first formal court system on the reservation," tribal chairman James Ramos told more than 100 guests who came to the Highland reservation to watch the swearing-in of Chief Judge Joanne Willis Newton, three appellate judges and a judge pro tem.

Each judge stood in black robes before Ramos and repeated an oath to apply "the San Manuel judicial code fairly and equally to all persons who will come before this court."

The new courthouse is big and airy, with a formal hearing room and various judges' chambers.

Ramos said the court, a decade in the making, is aimed at furthering the tribe's sovereignty and bolstering tribal government. It is also meant to be an impartial body on a small reservation where many of the families are related.

"It puts a neutral set of eyes out there," he said.

The San Manuel number just over 200, but the tribe -- with its casino, restaurant and entertainment complex near San Bernardino -- is among the richest and most influential in the state. Still, the reservation has seen its share of problems over the years, along with persistent allegations that tribal law enforcement has gone easy on suspects from well-connected families.

Ramos took office last year vowing to confront crime. According to law enforcement officials, elements of the Mexican Mafia had infiltrated the reservation and were dealing drugs. At one point, Ramos had a full-time bodyguard.

"The social ills we face are the same that face any growing community," he said.

California tribes function under Public Law 280, which gives local law enforcement responsibility for handling crime on reservations.

In some states, such as Arizona, tribes have courts, their own police departments and jails.

The courts offer a way for California Indians to catch up with the judicial practices of tribes outside the state, said Carole Goldberg, a UCLA law professor and a tribal judge herself.

"Fifteen years ago, I could name only one tribal court within the state, and now there are over a dozen," she said. "It's a way of reinforcing the legitimacy of tribal governments both internally and in the eyes of outsiders."

Over the years, some California tribes have come into conflict with police over what law enforcement can and can't do on Indian land.

After several members of their tribe were shot dead in confrontations with Riverside County sheriff's deputies last year, the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians near San Jacinto told authorities they needed permission to enter the reservation.

The tense standoff that followed led to a series of negotiations that have eased the tension between the two sides.

The San Manuel tribe traditionally has worked closely with the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, which will continue to patrol the reservation and respond to crime.

Indian law, Ramos said, is based more on bringing people together than on inflicting punishment.

"The judge here has to understand that on a reservation, things aren't as transparent as they often are in other communities," he said.

The court's punishment will be limited for the most part to fining offenders.

All of the judges are of Indian ancestry. Chief Judge Willis Newton belongs to the Cree Nation of Quebec.

There are now about 17 formal Indian courts in California, Willis Newton said.

"It's a growing number every year," she said.

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Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times



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