Tribal courts are courts of general jurisdiction. In general, states lack jurisdiction over the activities of Native Americans and tribes on tribal lands (tribal and federal courts generally share jurisdiction over these activities). However, Public Law 280 (PL 280) created an exception to this rule in certain states, including California. Through PL 280, Congress transferred the federal government’s legal authority over all criminal offenses involving Native Americans on tribal lands to the state government, and opened state courts up as forums for civil litigation that had previously only been able to be brought in tribal or federal courts. The effect of PL 280 is that in many areas state and tribal courts share jurisdiction.

In addition, certain laws concern state treatment of Native American issues, and are thus heard in state courts. These laws include the Indian Child Welfare Act (governs the removal and out-of-home placement of American Indian children) and its state counterpart as well as California laws concerning cultural resource and sacred site protection.

State Courts


  • Courts of Appeal. There are six appellate districts in California. Courts of Appeal have appellate jurisdiction when superior courts have original jurisdiction, and in certain other cases prescribed by statute. Like the Supreme Court, they have original jurisdiction in habeas corpus, mandamus, certiorari, and prohibition proceedings (Cal. Const., art. VI, § 10). Cases are decided by three-judge panels. Decisions of the panels, known as opinions, are published in the California Appellate Reports if those opinions meet certain criteria for publication. In general, the opinion is published if it establishes a new rule of law, involves a legal issue of continuing public interest, criticizes existing law, or makes a significant contribution to legal literature (Cal. Const., art. VI, § 14; Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.1105(c)).
  • California Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of California is the state’s highest court. Its decisions are binding on all other California state courts. The court conducts regular sessions in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento; it may also hold special sessions elsewhere.The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in proceedings for extraordinary relief in the nature of mandamus, certiorari, and prohibition. The court also has original jurisdiction in habeas corpus proceedings (Cal. Const., art. VI, § 10). The state Constitution gives the Supreme Court the authority to review decisions of the state Courts of Appeal (Cal. Const., art. VI, § 12).


Tribal-State Resources

  • Tribal / State Programs. Legal services and technical assistance for local courts on inter-jurisdictional issues across all case types and assists with the development of policies, positions, and programs to ensure the highest quality of justice and service for California’s Native American communities.
  • Judicial Council Tribal Court – State Court Forum. and state court judges come together as equal partners to address areas of mutual concern to the state and tribal justice systems in California.


Indian Child Welfare Act Court Resources

  • Tribal Customary Adoption Resources. Resources for permanency option for Indian children who are dependents of the California Courts.
  • Indian Child Welfare Act Appellate Project. Part of the Indian Law Clinic at MSU College of Law, works for tribes to provide appellate support through technical assistance, brief drafting, research, a document bank, and networking information for tribal ICWA attorneys.


Tribal Courts



Tribal Court Resources

  • California Tribal Justice System Resources. State and federal resources for tribal justice programs.
  • Tribal Court Clearinghouse. Comprehensive website established to serve as a resource for American Indian and Alaska Native Nations, American Indian and Alaska Native people, tribal justice systems, victims services providers, tribal service providers, and others involved in the improvement of justice in Indian country. It is one of the most comprehensive websites on tribal justice system issues, and includes a wealth of tribal, state, and federal resources. 
  • Tribal Law and Policy Institute Legal Code Development Series. Resources to aid in tribal legal code development. 


Federal Courts


  • United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is the highest tribunal in the United States for all cases and controversies arising under the Constitution or the laws of the United States. As the final arbiter of the law, the Court is charged with ensuring the American people the promise of equal justice under law and, thereby, also functions as guardian and interpreter of the Constitution. The Supreme Court consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and such number of Associate Justices as may be fixed by Congress. The number of Associate Justices is currently fixed at eight (28 U. S. C. §1). Power to nominate the Justices is vested in the President of the United States, and appointments are made with the advice and consent of the Senate.