Tribal Courts

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In some states in the US, there is more to their trial court system than the usual civil and criminal courts. There is one very important branch to trial court system, one which many don’t realize exists, mostly because it does not exist in every state. These are the Tribal Courts. Instead of being a part of state trial courts and existing as a division, these courts actually operate as their own justice system with their own set of laws and regulations.

The Tribal Court systems address the needs of Native American communities. While the governments of the Tribal communities and the US Federal government work together, the United States government recognize the sovereignty of the Native American laws and methods of justice, and therefore are not a large part of its procedures. Each tribe actually has its own Tribal Court system that they follow.  The Tribal Court system is entirely part of a particular tribe.

As with the civil and criminal trial court systems, the Tribal Courts are created to resolve disputes and maintain safety in their communities. Many of the rules and procedures are similar to the traditional western justice system, while still incorporating the dispute resolution techniques of their tribes. The system can include trial courts, appellate courts, and other means of dispute resolution. Also within trial system, they may have specialized divisions, including Family Courts and Drug Courts.

Over 200 out of the 500 Federally recognized tribes have their own Tribal Court system. Tribal Courts can hear many of the same matters heard in courts under the US legal system. This can include divorce matters, probate, general civil lawsuits, and more. It may be the case that if both plaintiff and defendant are members of a particular tribe that is governed by a Tribal Court system, then these courts may actually be the only legal recourse.

The existence of the Tribal Court systems is important to bear in mind, especially in the context of court records. While you may be expecting for a certain case to appear in a specific court, you should consider whether the matter involves a tribal issue, or members of a tribe.  If this is the case, the matter will likely be in a Tribal Court, instead of a traditional state or county court.   As mentioned, there are not many Tribal Court systems. In fact, these exist in only a few states, including: Washington, California, Arizona, Idaho, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. To find more information about court structures and court records, visit

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