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Trial Advocacy Training for Tribal Court Judges, Prosecutors, and Defenders

Since 2011, the Access to Justice Initiative (ATJ) has partnered with the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Tribal Services to host a series of tribal court trainings known as the Tribal Court Trial Advocacy Training Program. This free, three-day trial advocacy course is designed to improve the trial skills of judges, public defenders, and prosecutors who appear in tribal courts. All trainings are staffed by experienced tribal prosecutors, defenders, judges, Assistant United States Attorneys who practice in Indian Country, and Assistant Federal Public Defenders.

The program seeks to strengthen tribal courts in furtherance of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the authority that the statute recognizes for tribal courts to exercise jurisdiction over serious criminal cases including felonies that potentially carry lengthy prison sentences. To implement this enhanced sentencing authority, tribal courts must provide substantive and procedural safeguards, including lawyers for indigent defendants who face incarceration for more than one year and law-trained judges to preside over the cases. These same safeguards are incorporated into the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013's voluntary special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction. By providing trainings for defenders, prosecutors, and judges, the program aims to strengthen the skills of those who appear in tribal courts so that tribes can exercise greater sovereignty in criminal justice matters that occur on their lands.

The first training in the series was held in August 2011 in Rapid City, S.D. In a unique and effective teaching strategy, trainings included combined sessions for defenders and prosecutors as well as breakout sessions that allowed each side to further develop trial skills. Participants gave overwhelmingly positive feedback at the end of their training and voiced support for the concept of combined trainings.

Since that time, additional trainings have been held in Phoenix, Ariz.; Duluth, Minn.; Ignacio, Co.; Great Falls, Mont.; Chinle, Navajo Nation (Ariz.); Seattle, Wash; Albuquerque, N.M.; Flagstaff, Ariz.; Missoula, Mont.; Grand Forks, N.D.; Reno, Nev.; and Philadelphia, Miss.

Based on the success of these trainings, additional trainings have been scheduled in the next two months:

  • December 2-5, 2013 in Oklahoma City, Okla.
  • January 27-31, 2014 in Albuquerque, N.M.

These trainings are catered to the needs of the communities in which they are offered. For example, in Grand Forks, N.D., in June 2013, attendees met with the federal justice leaders in the state about the importance of strong independent tribal courts to ensure public safety in Indian County. Participants heard from Chief Justice Ralph Erickson of the U.S. District Court Judge for the District of North Dakota; Tim Purdon, U.S. Attorney for the District of North Dakota; and Neil Fulton, Federal Defender for the Districts of South and North Dakota.

Chief Justice Erickson cautioned that for tribal courts to be effective, "the principles of independence and due process have to be at center stage."

And he also encouraged tribal courts to draw from their community's traditions and cultures:

"Tribes can and should incorporate Indian cultural traditions as peacemaker courts and talking circles, and those features should be respected by people outside the tribes."

US Attorney Purdon similarly noted that tribal courts "don't have to be the mirror image of a state or federal court and that Standing Rock system of handling cases in a peacemaker manner amongst disputing parties is a model that can be replicated."

Additional trainings in 2014 are being planned, which will be posted here. All trainings are free with CLE credit available and open to judges, public defenders, and prosecutors who appear in tribal courts. For more information about these trainings and how to register, please visit

Updated April 7, 2017