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Where Native Culture and American Jurisprudence Meet

How Judy Dworkin’s Indian law practice led her to the tribal court bench

Published in 2022 Southwest Super Lawyers magazine

If there’s a common element in Judy Dworkin’s winding path to practicing Indian law and becoming a tribal court judge, it’s water.

After earning a Ph.D. in geographical sciences with an emphasis on water resources at Clark University in Massachusetts in 1978, she taught at the University of Toronto before moving to the Department of Hydrology and Water Resources at the University of Arizona. There she worked for the U.S. Water Resources Council on various groundwater laws and management systems.

By the time she graduated from law school at ASU, the state’s Groundwater Management Act of 1980 had passed, and firms were looking to recruit lawyers with knowledge on the topic. Dworkin fit the bill. Several years later, she connected with a young Native American associate who was looking for help to represent Tohono O’odham Nation, of which he was a member. 

“I decided that was a pretty cool niche to be in,” Dworkin says. “So I worked from there to develop the practice.” 

Now the head of the Indian law and tribal relations practice at Sacks Tierney in Scottsdale, Dworkin’s current workload still includes tribal water cases. “We represent the Navajo Nation in the water rights adjudication—to establish the water rights of all parties to the Little Colorado River,” she says. While these cases are typically settled out of court, her client rejected a settlement years ago. Now litigation will determine how much water is necessary for a permanent homeland. “Should the tribe have the right to develop as affluent communities off-reservation?” asks Dworkin. “Or should they be limited to a minimal amount of water that just leaves them at a disadvantage as compared to off-reservation communities?”

Working within tribal law comes with unique complexities. When drawing up contracts, there are the questions of which jurisdictions will apply, whether the tribal enterprise is immune from lawsuits, and if disputes will be resolved in arbitration or tribal court. “That’s always part of an Indian lawyer’s bread-and-butter,” Dworkin says.  

One memorable case involved representing the Hualapai Tribe enterprise as it worked to build a hotel and related amenities. There was an unusual roadblock: The tribe’s own constitution restricted its efforts. Eventually Dworkin took the case up to the Southwest Intertribal Court of Appeals. “We were successful,” she says. “The hotel was built.”  

In 1995, her Indian law practice took an unexpected turn that brought her to the bench. When there was a short-term need for a judge in the Tohono O’odham tribal court, Dworkin was asked to step in due to her previous work with the tribe. Since 2015, she’s served as an appellate justice for the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community Court.

“One of the things that tribes have tried to do is—while they are trying to interpret the law in the way that their culture has for thousands of years resolved its disputes—they also recognize that they have to sort of come to grips with the American system of jurisprudence,” Dworkin says. 

Now, as the presiding appellate justice, her priorities include making sure judges are reading the law the same way and the right procedures are being followed. Another is to maintain an even-keeled approach and a focus on listening—even to those who are critical of her position. Over the years, some advocates have questioned how Dworkin could properly know the law when she’s not from the culture. “My answer always was, ‘That’s not my role to know it, my role is for you to tell me and for the other party to tell me that you’re wrong,’” she says.

Her judicial experience has encouraged her to focus on being as clear as possible in her own cases, making sure she does everything she can to educate the judge or the other party on her position. 

And Dworkin looks forward to the day she’ll be replaced. “I always anticipate that, because I’m non-Indian,” she says, “my role will be taken over by what is becoming a larger and larger group of Native American attorneys that have been bar-certified.”

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