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January 22, 2024 HUMAN RIGHTS

Human Rights Hero: Chief Judge Abby Abinanti, Yurok Tribe

by Jerry Gardner

Abby Abinanti, chief judge of the Yurok Tribe in northwestern California, is a fierce, strong elder who has dedicated her life to humane justice. She has been a national leader at the forefront of establishing innovative justice systems that focus on restoring rather than punishing offenders to keep Tribal members out of prison, prevent children from being taken from their communities, and stop the school-to-prison pipeline that plagues Native youth.

Judge Abby, as everyone calls her, was profiled in the award-winning documentary Tribal Justice, which was featured on the national PBS acclaimed documentary series, POV, in August 2017. Tribal Justice features Judge Abby and the late Claudette White, chief judge of the Quechan Tribe in southeastern California, who we lost to COVID in 2021 and who dedicated her life to creating and modeling courtroom practices to heal rather than punish. Tribal Justice will continue to carry her message forward. The documentary shows both Judge Abby and Judge White asserting Tribal sovereignty and invoking their traditions to shift away from punishment-oriented methods to more personal, humane, and effective ways of dealing with offenders that address root problems and restore balance to the community. As Judge Abby remarks in the film, “There’s a winner and loser when you walk out of state court, straight up. That isn’t okay here. It does not resolve the issue.” State court, she says, “is essentially justice by strangers. But in a village, that’s not true.” No Yurok, she said, would have thought of going outside the tribe for justice a couple of hundred years ago. 

Abby Abinanti, chief judge of the Yurok Tribe in northwestern California, is a fierce, strong elder who has dedicated her life to humane justice.

Abby Abinanti, chief judge of the Yurok Tribe in northwestern California, is a fierce, strong elder who has dedicated her life to humane justice.


Judge Abby has been working in the field of Indian law since 1974, when she became the first Native American woman to practice law in California. She later became the first Native American woman to be a California state judge serving as a commissioner for the San Francisco Superior Court for more than 17 years, assigned to the Unified Family Court (Family/Dependency/Delinquency). She returned to Yurok Country in 1978 to set up the tribe’s fishing court, and then again in 1993, when the tribe earned federal recognition. The Yurok Tribal Court was launched three years later, and in 2007 she became its chief judge.

Among her innovations are the creation of the first Tribal-run program in the nation to help members expunge their criminal records and California’s first Tribal child support program, which allows non-cash alternatives for payments—such as donations of fish or manual labor. Yet, her greatest impact has arguably been on wellness court, where many of the participants come through a rare partnership with the state criminal justice system. Her decades on the state and Tribal court bench have earned her crucial credibility with state court judges, prosecutors, and probation officials, allowing her staff to pull Tribal members out of the state criminal justice system and bring them home. She has also coauthored and provided guidance on intergovernmental collaborations to assist tribes in making informed decisions concerning the possibility of a Joint Jurisdiction Court.

Judge Abby said of the Yurok Wellness Court, “We are trying to establish a justice system that fits our people and works for them. It’s not easy to be a Yurok. There are a lot of responsibilities that go with it.” She presses participants to remember—or discover—what it means to be Yurok.

The proceedings in her court are different in a lot of ways than they are in other courtrooms. “We don’t have someone on a bench, someone who is removed from the people we’re working with. You’re supposed to interact with the people you’re working with, care about them, and be part of them.” Judge Abby doesn’t wear a robe, opting instead for jeans and cowboy boots. She sits not on a dais but behind a wooden desk in a small room.

Incarceration has largely been replaced by supervised release combined with Yurok traditions such as dancing and wood carving. Almost every case, including family disputes and child custody battles, is resolved through mediation—victims and perpetrators talking with each other—even if it takes years. Judge Abby says it resembles the old Yurok values system.

“Here we have a village society,” Judge Abby says of California’s largest tribe, “and the people who help you to resolve your problems are the people you know. You take responsibility for what you did. . . . And if you can ask for help, I’m willing to give you a hand. I won’t ever say you’ve used up your chances.”

It is appropriate for the American Bar Association to join with others in recognizing and honoring Judge Abby as a Human Rights Hero for her enormous contributions to restorative and humane justice.

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Jerry Gardner

Founding Executive Director of the Tribal Law and Policy Institute

Jerry Gardner is the founding executive director of the Tribal Law and Policy Institute, a Native non-profit corporation organized to design and deliver education, research, training, and technical assistance programs that promote the enhancement of justice in Indian country and the health, well-being, and culture of Native peoples. He currently serves as a special counsel for the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.