Skip to main content

How to Practice in Tribal Courts

Posted by attorney John Swimmer


Tribal courts in many ways are similar to state and federal courts. But all differ in the procedures, requirements to practice, and law applied. Many tribal courts required judges and attorneys to have a law degree, but not necessarily be admitted to the state's highest court. Some tribal courts use judges that have no legal training but instead are respected elders who know the traditions and culture of the tribe. Many tribal courts are not constitutional courts but are created by the tribal council or legislative body. The first place to start if you are appearing is to look at the tribe's constitution. Some tribe's have their tribal constitution on their website, and there is tribal clearinghouse provided by the National Indian Law Library that has numerous tribal constitutions.

Tribal courts have broad authority to hear civil disputes similar to state court. The primary limit a particular tribal court's authority is as follows: the tribal constitution, organic act, and federal law. Many tribes have their laws and procedures online. If you cannot find the tribal laws online, then the next best is to call the clerk. Most tribal clerks are helpful, but often they do not know the law, and even more often they are trained not to provide legal advice.

Additional resources provided by the author; National Indian Law Library, Native American Research Fund.

Author of this guide:

Was this guide helpful?