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Northwest Tribal Courts Providing Free Access to Justice

The Northwest Intertribal Court System on June 26 launched an online database providing free access to tribal court appellate opinions.

The Northwest Intertribal Court System (NICS) on June 26 launched a powerful online database providing attorneys and the public free access to hundreds of tribal court appellate opinions from 30 Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Northern California.

The new NICS platform features a “Boolean” search engine, hyperlinked subject matter and tribal indexes, U.S.-based technical support, and a mobile application. Until now, the opinions have been available only in print or on CD.

Other legal databases, like Westlaw and LexisNexis, charge a substantial fee for similar services. NICS can provide its database for free, in part because of grants from the charitable funds of the Tulalip, Muckleshoot, and Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribes, and ongoing support from NICS’ other member tribes.

“Publishing these appellate court opinions online with a powerful search engine and making it available for free puts NICS and the many tribes participating in this project on the cutting edge of using technology to promote access to justice,” said Michael Rossotto, the NICS Appellate Department Director. “While federal, state and many tribal courts publish their decisions online, we are not aware of any other court system, federal, state or tribal, that offers online access to its decisions with all of the features we are offering free of charge,” said Rossotto.

Formed in 1979, the Northwest Intertribal Court System (NICS) is a consortium of Indian tribes that have joined their resources to ensure that each tribe is able to have its own court by sharing judges, prosecutors, and court-related services. The database represents a new and important chapter in the development of tribal justice systems and demonstrates NICS’ dedication to its member tribes.

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The new NICS database will support its member courts by increasing efficiency, promoting access, bolstering tribal court credibility, and demonstrating the inherent sovereignty of the tribal governments, tribal officials said.

“Published appellate decisions are a testimony of tribal sovereignty and our inherent right to govern our affairs according to Shoalwater Bay tribal laws and customs,” said Lynn Clark, Court Administrator for the Shoalwater Bay Tribe. “It promotes the tribal court’s professional credibility and shares appellate judgments and precedents in tribal laws.”

Pro se litigants will especially benefit from the new system. For the first time, tribal members who represent themselves in the tribal courts administered by NICS can tap into the collective wisdom of hundreds of tribal court jurists with a free and easy-to-use online database. Legal scholars, judges, and tribal law practitioners throughout the U.S. will also benefit from being able to access and research this rich resource, which now spans over 27 years of court decisions and will be continually updated as new opinions are issued by NICS-administered courts.

“Making our Court of Appeals’ opinions available online will better enable our tribal members to represent themselves,” said Muckleshoot Tribal Council Chair Virginia Cross. “It should also reduce costs for those who are able to afford a spokesperson or attorney, and will reduce the overall cost of administering our justice system by making legal research quicker, easier and more effective.”

“The Tulalip Tribes have for many years published the opinions of our Court of Appeals with NICS, the Indian Law Reporter, and Westlaw. Making these opinions available and researchable for free through the NICS website is yet another example of Tulalip’s exercise of its sovereign authority and its leadership in implementing the federal Tribal Law and Order Act and Violence Against Women Act,” added Herman Williams, Chairman of the Tulalip Tribes.

NICS’ tribal court appellate opinions, previously compiled in books known as “appellate reporters,” are published online by Code Publishing Company, Inc., of Seattle, Washington. NICS is also taking pre-orders for a library-quality bound reprint edition of the entire series of reporters. To access the NICS Tribal Court Appellate Opinions database, view a list of the participating tribes, or order the library-quality print edition, visit NICS on the web at: