News & Media

TJSL Hosts Highly Informative Indian Law Panel Discussion

Published: February 25, 2013
NALA Panel
Angela Medrano of NALA and Professor Bryan Wildenthal

On Friday, February 22, TJSL hosted San Diego's Native American Lawyers Association (NALA) for an MCLE panel discussion the law governing Indian tribes and Native American rights and the issues of bias affecting Native Americans (American Indians) in the courtroom and legal system generally.

The event was organized by NALA President Angela Medrano, an attorney who is a member of the Cahuilla Band of Mission Indians in rural Riverside County, formerly a Gaming Commissioner for her tribe and staff attorney at California Indian Legal Services, and currently working as a coordinator for the Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) Program on the Pechanga Reservation in Temecula in Riverside County.

Ms. Medrano led off the first hour-long panel, which provided an overview and introduction to the history and law of Indian tribes in

California and nationally. Ms. Medrano focused on the experience of California Indians.

Professor Bryan H. Wildenthal, a non-Indian like many longtime members of NALA, who teaches the course on American Indian Law here at TJSL, finished out the first panel by surveying the history of legal doctrines governing tribes and Native American rights, from the "treaty era" of 1776-1871, through U.S. government efforts to break up and "allot" Indian lands and destroy Indian Nation governments and cultures, from 1871 to 1933, to modern policies begun during the New Deal administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to support the re-invigoration of Indian sovereign governments and promote the cultural and economic renaissance of Indian country.

The second hour-long panel focused more specifically on the experience of bias in the legal system that many Indian people and tribes encounter. Mr. Tuari Bigknife , Attorney General for the Viejas Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, near Alpine east of San Diego, spoke about the importance for attorneys of seeking out information about tribal laws and customs when involved in lawsuits concerning Indians or Indian country. Mr. David Clifford, Senior Associate at Shanker & Kewenvoyouma, described some incidents involving non-Indian attorneys who approached tribal governments and citizens with hostility, ignorance, and lack of understanding of the law. This only defeated the interests of the non-Indian clients. Ms. Joanne Willis Newton, a solo practitioner (Law Offices of Joanne Willis Newton) and expert on the Indian Child Welfare Act, described her heritage and experiences as a member of one of the Canadian "First Nations" (as Canada generally refers to their Native tribes). She noted that bias can flow from many sources, as she described her own struggle to obtain recognition from the Canadian Government as a First Nations member and to obtain employment with First Nations in Canada, before coming to the United States to pursue her legal education and practice law.

The highlight of the entire event was provided by the Honorable Anthony Brandenburg ‘79,  an alumnus of TJSL and Chief Judge of the Intertribal Court of Southern California, based on the Rincon Reservation near Valley Center (north of Escondido) with a branch office at the Sycuan Reservation. Judge Brandenburg described his court as a consortium to which numerous tribes in the San Diego County area send both trial and appellate cases, in matters of torts, contracts, family law, and other areas. He emphasized the importance of seeking out and knowing the laws and customs of the tribes with which any attorney may deal, and that attorneys must appreciate that "when they cross that cattle-guard" (referring to the boundary of the Rincon reservation), "you are not in California" (in a legal sense) but rather within Indian country and governed by a different and unique set of laws. "We will guarantee you due process," he emphasized, noting that his court functioned essentially as a "court of equity" and would never deny any claim of substantial justice based on a legal technicality. He offered several colorful anecdotes drawn from his own long experience as a person of Indian heritage, lawyer, and now judge of an innovative and successful court. He has served on a number of important statewide committees and has worked closely with state judges, including the Chief Justice of California.

Judge Brandenburg noted that after some initial struggles, his court over the past seven years has earned the respect of other local and state governments, courts, and officers, including the District Attorney and the County Sheriff. He opined that despite the bad history of injustice and mistreatment of Indians in California, San Diego County probably now has the "best relationship" between Indian and non-Indian governments and communities of any of California's 58 counties.