Project on the Judiciary

In recent decades, tribes have witnessed the negative impact of a lack of both judicial diversity and knowledge of federal Indian law on tribal sovereignty and the ability of tribes to self-govern. Recent federal-court decisions have undermined longstanding Indian policy in crucial areas, including tribal adjudicative authority over non-Indians; the power of tribal governments to tax certain activities by non-Indians on tribal lands; the authority of the Secretary of the Interior to take land into trust for tribes; and the scope of the federal government’s trust responsibility to Indians. Whether done consciously or not, the federal judiciary has succeeded in dismantling favorable precedent and creating new law that disregards tribal sovereignty and will harm tribal interests if applied in future cases.

In response to disastrous court opinions and legislative attacks on the status of tribal governments, tribal leaders formed the Tribal Sovereignty Protection Initiative (TSPI) in September, 2001. Tribal leaders structured the TSPI as four separate components: the Legislative Committee, the Tribal Supreme Court Project, the Federal Judicial Selection Project, and the Education and Public Outreach Committee—all working together toward the common goal to protect tribal sovereignty. Under this framework, tribal leaders, attorneys, and other experts have coordinated and developed an array of educational, legal, political, and grassroots strategies.

One of TSPI’s key components, on which NCAI continues to work daily, is the NCAI Project on the Judiciary. The Project is a comprehensive effort that has primarily focused on ensuring that the federal judiciary is composed of judges that understand federal Indian law and the contours of tribal sovereignty. The Project has hosted several groundbreaking meetings between tribal leaders and federal appellate judges. However, with the current dearth of Native judges on the federal bench, the Project recently expanded its outreach and education campaign in tribal communities and judicial circles in hopes of getting more Native attorneys involved in the judicial selection process.

NCAI will continue to work toward fulfillment of the Project’s goals by expanding its outreach and educational efforts and ensuring that qualified Native American candidates are given fair consideration during the federal judicial selection process.

For more information on the NCAI Project on the Judiciary, please visit