Isleta Tribal Court Violating Rights of Tribal Members

Attorneys from the American Indian Law Center, Inc., (AILC) evaluated the Isleta Tribal Court in March of 2016. According to the AILC, the Tribal Court is violating the rights of tribal members.

The AILC is an independent organization. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) awarded a grant to the AILC to evaluate tribal courts.

To conduct the evaluation, the AILC:

  • Interviewed court staff, tribal members and tribal employees;
  • Observed judges holding court proceedings;
  • Reviewed a previous assessment from 2009;
  • Examined financial, budget and other miscellaneous records;
  • Examined tribal laws, rules and procedures; and
  • Randomly selected case files for review.

The AILC also requested to hold a community meeting to give tribal members a chance to voice concerns about the Tribal Court. However, Governor Eddie Paul Torres denied their request. So,the AILC placed a notice in the tribal newsletter inviting community members to be interviewed. Only five (5) persons responded.

In addition to those persons, the AILC interviewed:

  • Tribal Judges (Chief Judge and 2 Associate Judges);
  • Court Administrator;
  • 2 Court clerks;
  • Bailiff;
  • Probation Officer;
  • Public Defender;
  • Tribal Prosecutor;
  • Director of the Social Services Department;
  • Director of Truancy Department;
  • Director of Behavioral Health;
  • Manager and Administrative Assistant of Surveying and Mapping;
  • Chief of Police; and
  • Director of the Pueblo Justice Healing Circle.

The AILC reported its findings to the Isleta Tribal Council.

Highlights of Key Findings

  • Judges are failing to follow Isleta’s Rules of Criminal Procedures. This causes unequal treatment of defendants.
  • Judges are violating Isleta’s Rules of Criminal Procedures by failing to conduct an “initial appearance” for persons arrested without a warrant. When a person is arrested without a warrant, Isleta’s Rules require the Court to conduct an “initial appearance” to determine whether police had “probable cause” to arrest the person. This is a violation of a person’s right to due process.
  • Each judge has their own informal method of conducting arraignments. Judges are not explaining the arraignment process to defendants. This is another violation of due process.
  • Judges are failing to sign arraignment orders and orders for conditions of release.
  • Court is failing to date stamp Notice of Hearing documents.
  • Court clerks do not have written procedures for organizing files and processing cases.
  • Court is using procedures that are not consistent with the Isleta Rules of Criminal procedures.
  • Court has made minimal effort to educate the community about the Court’s rules and processes.
  • Court is failing to process civil cases in a timely manner.
  • Poor tracking and lack of oversight of civil cases.
  • Lack of written laws, policies and procedures creates confusion on how to proceed with civil cases for court staff and court users.
  • Case filing lacks consistency and organization.
  • Court is missing files.
  • Tribal Council is failing to provide copies of laws to the Court. Council only provides the Court with copies of laws when the Court makes a formal request to the Council.

Concerns from Community Members

Here are some of the concerns from the five (5) community members interviewed by the AILC.

  • Tribal members perceive Court as improperly influenced by other branches of government;
  • Court lacks fluent Tiwa speakers;
  • Few resources to persons who are representing themselves;
  • Court provides little guidance about the Court’s basic procedures;
  • Failure to provide community with copies of laws, rules and procedures; and
  • Public Defender plea bargains most cases (In other words, Public Defender does not go to trial).


Here are some of the AILC’s recommendations:

  • Pueblo should make laws, codes, ordinances, procedures, etc., easily accessible to the public.
  • Court needs to adopt written policies and procedures for case organization and case processing.
  • Provide training for court staff on customer services to help promote fairness and respect.
  • Develop written policies and procedures including a court clerk manual and bench book to provide consistency and guidance.
  • Tribal rules of criminal procedures must be clarified and followed.
  • Develop and provide a guide book for persons who are representing themselves.
  • Develop a list of fluent native speakers who could serve as interpreters.
  • Instead of closing during the lunch hour, Court could remain open. This would improve accessibility by creating convenience to community members who only have their lunch hour to do business at the court.

Editorial Comment


Why did Governor Torres deny the AILC’s request to hold a community meeting? This would have allowed tribal members an opportunity to voice concerns about the Isleta Tribal Court.

What type of action will the Tribal Council take to remedy the problems at the Court?

What is the action plan of the Tribal Court to remedy the problems?

Will the Justices of the Isleta Appellate Court take any action to resolve the problems at the Tribal Court? The Appellate Court has “superintending control of the tribal court.” This means that the Appellate Court has the power and authority to control the lower tribal court. So, will they take any action to correct the problems at the court?

The Justices of the Appellate Court are:

Lee Bergen, Esq.;
Scott Aaron, Esq.:
Tony Lucero;
Ken Reid; and
Roshanna Toya.

Two (2) years ago, tribal members Paula and Judy Abeita went before the Council to express their concerns about the Isleta Tribal Court. Paula Abeita reported that the Court failed to give them proper notice for a hearing and failed to properly safeguard her court file. She also complained that court employees were rude. The AILC’s report shows that the same problems reported two (2) years ago still exist today. Why?

Why didn’t our tribal officials take action to remedy the problems at the Tribal Court?

The problems identified by the AILC are serious. This is our court system. One day, you or someone that you care about could be standing in front our court waiting for a tribal judge to make a decision concerning your children, your freedom, your inheritance, your property or your constitutional rights.

Do you want to stand before judges who are incompetent?

Do you want to stand before judges who are unfair?

Do you want to stand before judges who lack the courage and integrity to stand against political pressure?


Isleta Tribal Courts Mishandling Court Files

Chief Judge Rodney Jones Resigns

Council Quietly Removes Judge R. Lar Thomas from the Bench

Rodney Jones Confirmed as Chief Judge

Political Hot Water for Tribal Court Judge

Renee Torres Out as Judge

Struggle to Appoint Renee Torres as Chief Tribal Judge

Fair Notice

One thought on “Isleta Tribal Court Violating Rights of Tribal Members

  1. Some day a judge who knows what the law is and is willing to enforce it, notwithstanding political pressure, while safeguarding the rights of the accused will be hired. Next, that judge will insist on uniformity and write rules to deal with the given situations and they will be adopted by the court. Then, the judge will insist on following the laws that the Tribal Council has adopted and will be removed from office by a vote of 7 to 0 when only 6 council members were present at the hearing.

    If you doubt me look at tribal history. The effectiveness of this tribal court has long been controlled by the Tribal Council. It has nothing to do with the ability to speak Tewa. All tribal laws are written in English and cultural perspective given by spokespersons when needed. This court will never function as a co-equal branch of government as it was set up to as long as corrupt politicians and cowardly judges are involved in the process.

    In my humble opinion this tribe has long been on the road to ruin as a result of its politicians and members who do not want accountability under the rules of justice. For example, members will continue to drive drunk and injure or kill themselves and others as long as they know the current system prohibits reporting violations to the State MVD as required.

    The state of the law on the pueblo is that even if a member is convicted of DUI/DWI, there is absolutely no way the violator’s license could be revoked. This is not so if you are not an enrolled member which flies in the face of the Tribal, State and US Constitutions’ equal protection clauses. Also, no other penalties such as the installation of an intoxalock device, attendance at a victim impact panel, etc. can be assessed in accordance with the law. In fact, even fines are paid from per capita payments so this is not even a real penalty. Thus, no matter how many convictions are racked up, no tribal member will ever lose their license and would be “legal” to drive anywhere in the country.

    If this is the moral standard you want to be known for, relax, your council and court have already provided it for you.

    R. Lar Thomas, Esq.

What are your thoughts?