Tribal Courts of New York
Cayuga  •  Oneida  •  Onondaga  •  St. Regis Mohawk  •  Seneca  •  Tonawanda Seneca  •  Tuscarora  •  Shinnecock  •  Unkechaug
N.Y. State Unified Court System  •  United States Courts for the Second Circuit Resident in the State of New York
color strip


The New York Tribal Courts Committee and the New York Federal-State-Tribal Courts Forum originate from a project of the Conference of Chief Justices, an organization of the chief judges of the courts of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and United States territories, whose mission is to improve the administration of justice in state court systems.  In 1985, the Conference created a committee to address state civil jurisdiction over Indians, after questions were raised by the United States Supreme Court’s two decisions in Three Affiliated Tribes v. Wold Engineering.  The Committee on Jurisdiction Within Indian Country, later called the Tribal Relations Committee (TRC), held a series of panels and conferences on tribal jurisdiction.  The TRC obtained funding from the National Center for State Courts and the State Justice Institute to study tribal-state court relations, and set up demonstration forums in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Washington. 

In 1991, the TRC held a national conference in Seattle, Washington, with representatives of tribal, federal and state governments and justice systems.  The TRC study and demonstration forums emphasized the need for cooperative efforts among federal, state and tribal entities, and the idea of creating forums to address and to resolve jurisdictional conflict expanded after this initial conference.  By 2003, 17 states had created tribal-state court forums.  In addition, the National Center for State Courts and the State Justice Institute published a 10-page guide for creating a forum, as encouragement for other states.

In 2002, Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye of the New York Court of Appeals created the New York Tribal Courts Committee to study the possibility of establishing a federal-state-tribal courts forum in New York and to explore how different justice systems might collaborate to foster mutual understanding and minimize conflict.  She appointed Justice Marcy L. Kahn of the New York State Supreme Court to chair the Committee.  Justice Edward M. Davidowitz, also of the New York State Supreme Court, soon joined the Committee and, under the guidance of Justices Kahn and Davidowitz as co-chairs, the Committee has worked for more than five years in a variety of ways to accomplish its mission.

back to top

Emerging Issues and Consensus for a Forum

On May 22, 2003, the Committee met in Liverpool, New York, with representatives of New York’s nine state-recognized Indian Tribes and Nations to ascertain their interest in developing a federal-states-tribal courts forum.  Since then, meetings have been held semiannually in Liverpool and Syracuse, New York.  The initial meeting sought to identify topics of special concern to the Nations. 

Among the issues discussed were difficulty with implementing the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), especially in ensuring an appropriate tribal role in state family court decisions regarding the placement of Indian children through foster care or adoption; tribal efforts to implement judicial systems and law enforcement through their own governments; and the need to education and train state court judges on Indian government and culture.  The Committee asked that tribal representatives discuss in their home communities the possibility of establishing a permanent forum in New York to address such issues.

At the group’s second meeting on November 3, 2003, Native participants agreed to help establish a permanent federal-state-tribal courts forum in New York.  Subsequently, the group focused on three main issues: the placement of Indian children by the state family courts under ICWA; the resolution of jurisdictional conflicts arising from disparate rulings among federal, state and tribal justice systems; and the  need to educate state and federal judges on tribal law and culture. 

During the three years following those initial meetings, members of the Committee and interested members of all nine Nations and Tribes have met every six months in Syracuse as the New York Federal-State-Tribal Courts Forum Planning Group (”Planning Group”) to address these and other issues of continuing and developing mutual interest. 

back to top

Creating the Forum

In 2004, the group formalized the New York Federal-State-Tribal Courts Forum, creating and adopting an organizational structure and mission statement.  Although these plans call for all nine State-recognized Nations to be members of the Forum, at this writing, in addition to the New York Unified Court System and the United States Courts for the Second Circuit, only the Oneida Indian Nation, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, Seneca Nation of Indians, Shinnecock Tribe and the Unkechaug Nation have formally designated their members and alternate members to the Forum.  While some of the Haudenosaunee Nations have not yet formally joined, their leaders continue to send members of their communities to the Forum meetings to serve as their “eyes and ears.”

As part of the Forum’s development, the Committee visited the Onondaga Nation longhouse, where they met with chiefs, clan mothers and council members from the Haudenosaunee, including the Onondaga Nation, Cayuga Indian Nation, Tonawanda Seneca Nation, Mohawk Nation Council and the Tuscarora Nation.  Members of the Committee also visited the Tuscarora and Oneida reservations, where they met with tribal officials and toured each Nation’s territory.

back to top

The First New York  Listening Conference

As early as its second meeting, the Planning Group proposed an educational session at which tribal representatives could meet with federal and state judges to discuss the key issues previously identified by Native peoples in New York.  The prime importance of these issues was readily apparent – ICWA, jurisdiction, and judicial education are all interrelated.  Problems in one area could not be solved without, at the same time, successfully addressing each of the other issues. 

On April 26-27, 2006, the First New York Listening Conference convened state and federal judges and court officials in sessions with tribal judges, chiefs, clan mothers, peacemakers and other representatives from the justice systems of New York’s Indian Nations and Tribes, to exchange information and learn about our respective concepts of justice. 

In November 2007, the Forum sponsored another educational session on ICWA which brought together clan mothers, law guardians and other persons involved in care of children who come before the courts.

The Forum continues to meet biannually to creatively respond to its
mission. The Forum does not address issues relating to casino gaming, land disputes, taxation or the substance of any matters currently in litigation.

Excerpted with permission from an article by Judge Marcy L. Kahn, Judge Edward M. Davidowitz and Joy Beane, “Building Bridges Between Parallel Paths: The First New York Listening Conference for Court Officials and Tribal Representatives,” 78 New York State Bar Journal 10, 12-13 (Nov./Dec. 2006)

back to top