Appointed to the position of Chief Judge for the San Manuel Tribal Court in Highland, California, Joanne Willis Newton is feeling honoured after being picked from among the 400 applicants.

It’s been a long road for Willis Newton who spent her childhood moving between her mother, Janie Pachano, in Fort George and then Chisasibi, and her father in California. She also spent a brief stint in Ottawa with her mother and stepfather, Chisasibi Chief Roderick Pachano.

Prior to becoming the Chief Judge for the Tribal Court, Willis Newton spent years working for the California Indian Legal Services, where she represented Native American people in various capacities. Willis Newton left in 2005 to start her own practice which she still maintains as her new position only requires her to perform part-time hours.

Willis Newton is no stranger, however, to Native politics and legal systems. She has served the Cree Nation of Chisasibi in a legal capacity and has worked for the Grand Council of the Crees, the Department of Justice Canada and Indian and Northern Affairs.

Having taken advantage of the Cree School Board’s post-secondary program to obtain a bachelor of arts, a bachelor of science, a law degree and a master’s degree in law, Willis Newton credits the CSB for what the program has done for her. The support the program provided her was crucial to her academic pursuits.

Willis Newton’s education paved a successful road for her and allowed her to fulfill her dreams.

“It is very gratifying because that was always my vision when I went to law school and realized that I wanted to do Aboriginal law and ultimately serve my community,” said Willis Newton.

Though she may not be serving the Crees at present, she hasn’t ruled out working for them again. At the same time, her December 2008 appointment as Chief Judge for the San Manuel Tribe has her doing incredibly important work as she is building a new justice system.

The Tribe started building the system a few years ago. According to Willis Newton, the Tribe has gone as far as putting some of the most significant codes in place like their rules of evidence and rules of civil procedure, their judicial code which established the court. They then focused on hiring a chief judge for the court, who would be responsible for overseeing the whole court and the court of appeal

“Since (December) it’s been up to me to do all of the groundwork as far as locating a facility within the reservation boundaries, working with different tribal departments on actually getting that up and running. I am responsible for developing the court rules and court forms and policy procedures and hiring but I work under a judiciary committee,” said Newton.

As the San Manuel people, who are part of the larger Serrano Nation, have sovereignty in California, they are entitled to a Tribal Court system when it comes to civil matters but Willis Newton said that for the community of 200, the state will continue to provide the criminal court system.

Willis Newton will serve as the Trial Judge for the community who are creating a two-level court system which will feature a trial court system and a three-panel court of appeal that will hear as the final level of review.

Within her capacities as a Chief Judge, Willis Newton will be able to refer parties to more culturally traditional alternative conflict resolutions similar to talking circles or healing circles. This will however be optional for the parties involved who will also be entitled to the standard Western approach within the courts that is available within the rest of the state.

As for how she is feeling about her appointment, Willis Newton said that she is very excited as the new position is the culmination of all of her desires in attending law school and focusing on Aboriginal law.

“I think being a First Nation member has totally driven my studies and my career because I focused very quickly in law school on Aboriginal law and decided that that is what I wanted to do. I wanted to focus on helping First Nations and tribes protect, develop and exercise their sovereignty and also Native American individuals, to protect their rights. Historically they have been disadvantaged so I think that this is really core to my identity and my motivations for pursuing law as a career and it has shaped really my whole career,” said Willis Newton.

Though the San Manuel Tribal Court is still in the developing stages, Willis Newton said that it will be most likely up and running by the end of the summer.

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