Respect for California Tribal Court Orders and Avenues for Tribes to Purchase Land
By Kia Murdoch, CILS Sacramento Office Staff Attorney
CILS has been tracking bills in the California legislature that are relevant to our community. In July 2021, two bills passed that are exciting steps forwards for California tribes:
Tribal Courts in California decide various cases, including family law cases such as dissolution of marriage, and issue orders regarding child support, spousal support, and the division of assets and benefits. Specifically, a Tribal Court may order the division of retirement benefits and other deferred compensation benefits. However, before the passage of AB 627, there was no federal or state law requiring a state court to recognize and enforce the Tribal Court on the division of these orders. Additionally, employers were not required to abide by a Tribal Court order regarding the division of retirement benefits unless a state court granted recognition and enforcement to the Tribal Court order. This bill created several problems for tribal members who chose to file their divorce in their Tribal Court: (1) the process to petition the state court to request recognition and enforcement of such a Tribal Court order is expensive and often takes months to resolve; and (2) state courts could decide not to recognize the Tribal Court order, forcing the parties to have to file a new divorce petition in state court to address the limited issue of dividing retirement or deferred compensation benefits.
AB 627, signed into law on July 9, 2021, established procedures for California courts to recognize Tribal Court family law orders involving the division of retirement and other compensation benefits. This means that the process to have a Tribal Court order regarding the division of benefits recognized in state court will be much simpler, more efficient, and less expensive. This bill significantly reduces the burden on tribal members who need to enforce a Tribal Court order regarding the division of retirement benefits. It is also an important step in further validating the role of Tribal Courts in resolving family law issues for their members.
Now that AB 627 is signed into law, the Judicial Council of California will be creating state court forms that tribal parties can fill out and jointly file to obtain recognition of their Tribal Court family law order by a state court.
Before the passage of AB 1180, any local agency able to acquire and hold land (such as cities, counties, housing authorities, etc.) was able to transfer anything deemed “exempt surplus land” to another local, state, or federal agency. AB 1180 added federally recognized Indian tribes to the definition of agencies who may purchase “exempt surplus land.”
This bill is a major step for federally recognized California tribes, providing a meaningful avenue for acquiring lost ancestral territory. Local agencies must take inventory once a year of any land it holds in surplus. They are encouraged by law to dispose of surplus land by making it available for public entities to purchase through specific procedures outlined in the Surplus Land Act. However, local agencies can also designate land as “Exempt Surplus Land,” which can be bought by a small list of local, state, or federal agencies without going through the purchasing procedures under the Surplus Land Act.
Adding federally recognized tribes to the list of agencies who may purchase “Exempt Surplus Land,” AB 1180 has made it significantly easier for Tribes to buy land from local agencies. Thanks to the efforts of Tule River Tribe, the primary sponsor, and source for AB 1180, the bill was signed into law on July 9, 2021.
Other Bills We Are Watching
The following bills are still in the Legislature, but if passed, will affect California Tribes:
- AB 516: Proposes excused absences for students to attend cultural ceremonies or events.
- AB 798: Adds federally recognized Indian tribes to the list of public agencies that own and operate ambulances, allowing tribes to certify and license their ambulances and ambulance drivers. Under this law, tribal ambulances and drivers will no longer be subject to inspection and approval by California Highway Patrol or treated as privately-owned ambulances.
- AB 873: Eliminates the tribe’s share of costs related to agreements between CDSS & tribal child welfare services, making agreements that include access to federal funding (such as Title IV-E) more accessible to tribes.
- AB 945: Proposes creating a Task Force to study how to comprehensively implement all aspects of existing law related to wearing traditional tribal regalia or recognized objects of religious or cultural significance as adornment at school graduation ceremonies.
- SB 712: Proposes to prohibit local governments from adopting or enforcing a resolution or ordinance that would prohibit the local government from conducting a fair evaluation of a fee-to-trust application by a federally recognized tribe based on the merits of the application.