Mar 11, 2014

SF Commissioner spearheads collaborative justice on Yurok tribal land

Tribal judge works for Yurok-style justice
By Lee Romney
Los Angeles Times (March 5, 2014)

"Abinanti in 1974 became the first Native American woman admitted to the State Bar of California. A longtime San Francisco Superior Court commissioner, she tried to retire in 2011 but was recently asked to return every other week, in addition to her work on the tribal court." (Photography by Francine Orr)

Klamath, Calif. -- Abby Abinanti squints at her docket. "The court is going to call — the court is going to put on its glasses," she says dryly, reaching to grab her readers and snatch some candy from a staff member.

As chief judge of the Yurok Tribal Court, Abinanti wears no robe. On this day, she's in jeans and cowboy boots, her silver hair spilling down the back of a black down vest. In contrast to her longtime role as a San Francisco Superior Court commissioner, she doesn't perch above those who come before her; she shares a table with them.

"Hi, big guy. How are you doing?" she softly prods a 29-year-old participant in her wellness court, which offers a healing path for nonviolent offenders struggling with substance abuse.

Abinanti has watched Troy Fletcher Jr. battle bipolar disorder and methamphetamine addiction, land in jail and embrace recovery under the tribe's guidance. She's known his grandmother since before he was born.

Though that would be cause for recusal in the state system, here it's pretty much the point. Her most common question for court newcomers: "Who's your mom?"

"Here we have a village society," Abinanti says of California's largest tribe, "and the people who help you to resolve your problems are the people you know."

Native American jurisprudence has evolved since tribes began to regain their sovereignty, returning to traditional values of respect, community support and responsibility, and collective healing — for victims, perpetrators and the circle of lives they touch.

Abinanti, who in 1974 became the first Native American woman admitted to the State Bar of California, has been at the forefront.

Related article:
Yurok Chief Judge Abby Abinanti and the wooden acorns she awards to successful participants in the tribe's wellness court.
"Yurok Chief Judge Abby Abinanti at her desk in Klamath, Calif. The handmade wooden acorns are given out individuals who successfully complete the tribe's wellness court program." (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times / November 20, 2013)

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