By Malcolm Maclachlan | 08/04/11 12:00 AM PST

To some, recently retired state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron George will be most remembered for legalizing same-sex marriage in California. Others will remember him as the architect of a major restructuring of the state’s court system.

But for California Indians, his legacy may be something entirely different: An initiative undertaken by George last year may lead California to formally recognize civil judgments from tribal courts.

Of the 109 federally recognized tribes in the state, nearly 20 operate their own court systems. Another dozen or so have started running limited court systems, or are actively exploring the idea. These courts oversee tribal members on tribal lands. Their authority rests on the limited sovereignty of Indian tribes, who operate as semi-autonomous nations within U.S. borders.

Most of the judges are retired state and federal judges. In fact, it was a letter from one of these tribal judges — Richard Blake, the judge for the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s tribal courts — that prompted George to take action.

But California Indians are also California residents who leave reservations, marry and enter contracts with non-Indians, and may actually belong to a tribe in another state. For those reasons – and others – the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) is seeking comment for proposed legislation that would formalize interactions between state and tribal courts.

The language comes out of the California Tribal Court/State Court Forum, the group George established in May of last year. Comments are due by the end of this month, with the goal being to find an author and pass legislation next year.

“We expect to have some structural commas, little details added or subtracted,” said Len Edwards, a retired Superior Court judge who sits on the Tribal Court Forum. He added that he didn’t expect any opposition.

Not so fast. Cheryl Schmit of the casino watchdog group Stand Up for California, said she had concerns.

“There are quite a number of problems with this proposal, the two most serious being inadequate grounds for objection and often difficult jurisdictional issues,” she said.

She added, “Even in tribal court, tribes assert immunity to civil liability. How do you get a fair trial if evidence can’t be put forward and the party that pulls you into court asserts immunity to any question you ask of it?”

Tribes, their members and non-Indians who interact with them already operate under a complex web of rules. Generally speaking, Indians on tribal land are subject to both state and tribal jurisdiction, while non-Indians are generally subject only to the state.

Adding to the confusion is that California is one of a handful of Public Law 280 states. In these half-dozen states — Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wisconsin are the others — the federal government has transferred some of their legal authority to the state. All have significant American Indian populations.

In matters of child custody, domestic violence and similar areas, tribal members have long been subject to protections via a number of federal laws. For instance, the Child Support Enforcement Act requires Indian parents to pay child support payments. The Indian Child Welfare Act requires the enforcement of custody orders from tribal courts.

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