July 2, 2024

In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe established that Indian tribal courts cannot prosecute non-Indians for crimes committed on tribal reservations. 

From that moment on, tribal courts began to exclusively manage the criminal cases of their own tribal members, and these parameters guided the development of tribal courts across the country. As each tribe constructed legal systems with the values and traditions of their cultures in mind, these courts diverged from their Western counterparts.

“We are doing more restorative justice than the usual criminal justice, which is quite rare in the country,” says Stan de Mello, associate teaching professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work. “Supportive community members go to these trials and sentencing hearings so they are able to offer assistance and make amends where they've severed relationships.”

An hour’s drive north of Seattle, the Tulalip Tribal Court offers master of social work (MSW) students a unique opportunity to take part in this legal system. Through the Tulalip Tribal Court Practicum, MSW students engage with clients’ cases in the tribal court, conduct independent research and even sit for the Tulalip tribal bar exam.

Intersection of Law and Social Work

People entering the criminal justice system often face a long list of intersecting needs, including housing, mental health, employment, and healthcare. Brenda Williams, teaching professor at the UW Law School, saw the chance to collaborate on a mutually enriching educational opportunity, and she reached out to the School of Social Work to see if they could integrate social work services into the public defense team. Williams describes this approach as “holistic public defense.” She explains, “We run a public defense clinic where we train law students; I aim to train them to the highest level of legal reasoning and with the most client-centered, holistic representation possible.”

The social work practicum was developed in close collaboration between Williams and her colleagues at the School of Social Work: Stan De Mello, Morna McEachern, and Dean Michael Spencer. In 2020, the first Tribal Court Practicum commenced, and a team of two MSW students and four law students began collaborating on casework.

The field work consists of a one-year practicum where MSW students work on cases and research, take a law class during fall, winter and spring quarters, and drive to the Tulalip Reservation for court every other week. The practicum also requires all students to pass the Tulalip tribal bar exam. This knowledge of tribal law allows social work students to advocate for defendants in the courtroom under legal supervision.

A Student’s Perspective
*To maintain the confidentiality of the defendants in the Tulalip Tribal Court, specific case details have been omitted from this story, which was approved by the program administrators and does not use any identifying information.

Jennifer Stoneking, a first-year MSW student, began the Tulalip Tribal Court practicum in the fall of 2023. She was delighted to find a collaborative team dynamic with fellow social work and law students.

“The law students wanted to hear my perspective,” says Stoneking. “When we were studying for the tribal bar exam, a law student and I would both read the same line in a completely different way. Our attention would go to completely different places, so I think having a diversity of lenses on a team is very helpful to our clients.”

Stoneking’s proudest moment came when the court considered her team’s research when sentencing two clients, the result of which was a sentence that imposed electronic home monitoring rather than jail time. Stoneking and her team submitted research showing that this would be an effective remedy that would not unduly disrupt their clients’ ability to support their families.

“It was great to personally see the faces of those two clients when the judge ordered at-home monitoring rather than jail,” says Stoneking. “They were able to keep working and be present for their families. It's just so nice knowing that my skills, my education, and what I'm learning in class is actually protecting vulnerable populations in real time.”

The Mission

The protection of vulnerable people lies at the heart of the practicum, which champions a mission to help clients access crucial services and navigate a complex legal system. This quality support is directly tied to a public defender's most valuable resource: time. Williams learned that lesson in her years as a public defender, at times handling 300 misdemeanor cases a year. Spending time with each client and getting to know their needs was impossible.

“The difference here is that law students can spend hours doing things that a public defender handling 300 cases a year cannot do,” says Williams. The team considers each client’s socio-economic, medical, educational and family histories. They verify whether they have access to a phone, their ability to understand legal documents and if they are receiving care for potential mental or physical illnesses.

“If a client is reading at a second or third grade level and gets punished for not fulfilling the written instructions ordered by a court, an overwhelmed public defender might reasonably say it's not their job to help them figure out what is on that piece of paper,” says Williams. In the practicum, cases are assigned to teams consisting of two or three law students and one or two social work students. For Williams, this serves as a model for well-funded public defense systems and an example for her students of what is possible when adequate time is apportioned for a case.

“For each Tribal Clinic case, there are five people thinking about this client and their legal problems, in addition to the staff attorney and myself as one of the supervising attorneys,” says Williams. “When that many people are thinking about your legal problems and your social needs, we're going to hit it out of the ballpark.”

UW and the Tulalip Tribal Court

While the Tribal Court Practicum is only in its fourth year, the partnership between the Tulalip Tribal Court and UW spans over 20 years.

In 2002, the Tulalip Tribes sought a partnership with the Native American Law Center at the UW School of Law to address their need for legal representation. “In that first decade, the tribe began to exercise increasingly serious types of criminal jurisdiction,” says Williams. “The court started out prosecuting misdemeanors, and by the 2010s, they exercised felony jurisdiction as well.” The clinic now serves as the primary public defender in criminal misdemeanor cases filed in tribal court. In the decades since, the Tribal Court Public Defense Clinic has become a national model for providing tribal public defender services. Williams, currently the director of the Tribal Court Clinic, worked for 10 years at the county public defender office in downtown Seattle and Kent, and returned to UW in 2008 as a faculty member focused on public defense.

While not a tribal member herself, Williams focused her research on tribal court jurisdiction and the tribal court’s ability to promote restorative justice. The intersection of tribal courts and public defense provides an excellent teaching ground for restorative justice.

“It's a good place for students to learn, and it includes so much that isn’t taught in our high schools and our graduate institutions,” she says. “It became a passion for me to center tribal governmental structures and tribal sovereignty, along with the concept of holistic public defense in order to share that with the School of Social Work students.”

To enroll in the Tribal Court Practicum, please contact Associate Teaching Professor Stan de Mello at the Office of Field Education.