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

Abinanti also has had a significant impact on the Yurok community through the tribe’s wellness court, which has been part of the Yurok Tribal Court since its inception. Its target: offenders who are suffering from addiction to drugs and alcohol.

“Our purpose is to help them get treatment, refocus and return to their path,” Abinanti said. “We’ve had a lot of individual successes. Our solutions are one by one. We have to keep going — from case management, to inpatient/outpatient treatment, to follow-up — and make sure these people right themselves.

“No one wants to be there,” she emphasized. “They want to get back to their better selves.”

Then there is her newest effort. Abinanti currently is working on a tribal council-approved pilot project, brokered with online Concord Law School-Kaplan University, that will help 10 tribal members pass the bar exam. Fundraising is necessary for program tuition, but Abinanti said it’s worth it, as this is a major area of concern for the Yurok Tribe.

“The employees will participate in an online program and graduate with a law degree,” she explained. “Those who pass the bar will commit to five years with the tribe, if the jobs are available. We’re creating a professional class of lawyers and advocates.”

Funding also is critical to Yurok Tribal Court operations, particularly case management. Abinanti acknowledged that this is always a challenge, so she works hard to help raise money for essential improvements – for example, being able to address truancy at the elementary level by sending case managers out into the field.

Abinanti admitted that she is beginning to contemplate retirement and a quieter life at her Klamath home. Yet she worries about the future of the court and her carefully tended programs, and she wonders how their ongoing management will impact the Yurok Tribe.

“What’s our transition plan?” she asked rhetorically. “Who will do all this? Of course I’m concerned.”

Until that transition plan is realized, she remains dedicated to her role, and that of the Yurok Tribal Court, in the community.

“This court is very different from others in its approach,” Abinanti observed. “There’s not just one way to do things. Our practices are derived from our traditional value systems, our village values.”


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