Courtesy Abby Abinanti
Abby Abinanti, Yurok Tribal Chief Justice: “We’re creating a professional class of lawyers and advocates.”

Putting the Yurok Tribe First; Judge Abinanti Reflects on Her Career

Heather Steinberger

Appointed to the San Francisco bench in the 1990s, she continues to serve as a San Francisco Superior Court commissioner in a part-time capacity; she travels to the city every other week. But she remains committed to serving her community in a way that best meets its unique needs.

According to its mission statement, the Yurok Tribal Court is dedicated to supporting the traditional values of the people and having those values inform the development of the court as a modern institution. Its statement also notes that the court’s role “is to protect the values of the people, to support the development of those values within each member of the community, and to ensure that our responsibility to protect our traditions and traditional lands are carried out.”

In keeping with that mission, Abinanti spearheaded important innovations that are making a difference in the daily lives of tribal members. One is California’s first tribal child support program. This allows tribal members to provide non-monetary forms of support rather than traditional cash payments. For example, food and labor are acceptable alternatives.

“This is a key issue for our sovereignty,” she said. “We’re in a better position than the state government to set up a fair support system, and we value different kinds of support. It’s more in our interest to handle it ourselves. I’m very pleased with the program.”

She also noted that the tribe will have a fully operational, online child-support court in April.

In addition, Abinanti created the country’s first tribal program that helps members clear their criminal records. Essentially, it allows offenders who have rehabilitated themselves to become productive members of society.

“Without a program like this, it could be very hard to get an education and find housing,” she commented. “I thought it was very important.”


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