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Central, South American visitors connect with Seminole Tribal Court

HOLLYWOOD — A group of visitors from eight Central and South American countries gathered at Tribal headquarters in Hollywood April 12 to meet with Seminole Tribal Court officials.

The morning session was designed for attendees to become acquainted with how the Tribal Court functions; to understand more about the relationship between the federal government and U.S. tribes; and also to learn a bit about the culture and customs of the Seminole Tribe itself.

Chief Justice Willie Johns, Chief Judge Moses B. Osceola and Deputy Clerk Silvia Obregon met with a dozen participants and translators in the auditorium for a presentation and meet and greet. The event was organized by Jacqueline González, Special Projects Administrator for the Tribal Court.

The visitors, all high level career officials within the legal profession, came from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay and Venezuela. They hold positions as lawyers, chief prosecutors, judges, attorney generals, heads of criminal justice offices, executive assistants and investigators.

This is all part of the International Visitor Leadership Program – administered by the U.S. Department of State with local partner Global Ties Miami.

This year marked the third time the Tribe has hosted visitors from the program. Last year, visitors came from 14 countries across the globe.

The program provides a way to introduce current and emerging foreign leaders to their professional U.S. counterparts. It seeks to provide room to explore opportunities for business, professional and academic collaboration.

From left, Chief Judge Moses B. Osceola, Chief Justice Willie Johns and Deputy Clerk Silvia Obregon explain different aspects of the Seminole Tribal Court system to program participants in April at Tribal Headquarters in Hollywood. (Photo Damon Scott)

Seminole Court structure

Of the 573 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., about 310 have tribal justice systems – a mix of traditional, combination (Anglo and traditional) and CFR courts (Court of Federal Regulations).

The Seminole Tribal Court is a relatively new one – it was approved through an ordinance in April 2011. As Chief Justice Johns and Chief Judge Osceola explained to the group, while the Tribal Court has the authority to handle criminal cases, it doesn’t. It deals strictly with civil ones and can use traditional laws if it sees fit.

Cases that generally come before the court include property disputes and family issues – such as child custody or divorces.

The Tribal Court consists of appellate, trial and administrative arms, along with a judicial commission. The court falls under two codes – a tribal court code and judicial commission code. There are no jury trials unless they are requested, Chief Judge Osceola said.

Tribes operate under the “Major Crimes Act” – a law that places certain crimes under federal jurisdiction even if they are committed by a Native American in Native territory.

Tribes are expected to turn over such cases to state or federal courts.

“We can only hold people who commit these crimes,” Chief Judge Osceola said. “A lot of Indian tribes feel the states are failing them … tribes are trying to regain authority to prosecute all crimes as they did before.”

However, non-Indian people can be prosecuted by tribes for domestic violence under the Violence Against Women Act, which is currently under a reauthorization review in Congress.

The reauthorization would allow tribes to keep offenders in jail for longer periods, too, from a maximum of one year to a maximum of three years.

Chief Judge Osceola added that as the Tribal Court grows older it will continue to build its trial docket and set more precedent. In the meantime, it can look to other courts for direction.

“If a judge needs direction he can call upon state or federal court precedent as necessary. They only influence a direction, but we decide in the end. We can draw on outside legal cases that have been conducted,” he said.

Another difference is that in Seminole Tribal Court the Elaponke and Creek languages are spoken when requested or needed.

“We’re losing a lot of the language, especially in the city areas. It’s not required that our Tribal members or even judges speak the language,” Chief Justice Johns said, adding that he hopes the language will be preserved in the long run.

Along with Chief Justice Johns and Chief Judge Osceola, the Tribal Court consists of Associate Justices Moses Jumper Jr. and Amy Johns, and Associate Judges Tina M. Osceola and Mary Tigertail.

Tribal officials take a final photo with participants after the presentation concluded. (Photo Damon Scott)

IVLP, Global Ties

The exchange program sends about 5,000 international visitors to the U.S. every year. Since 1940, more than 225,000 participants have engaged with Americans through the IVLP.

Alumni in the program include more than 500 current or former chiefs of state or heads of government, 10 Nobel Laureates, and thousands of leaders in the private and nonprofit sectors, officials said.

Participants are nominated by the staff at U.S. embassies and consulates.

Global Ties Miami, located in Coral Gables, hosts about 300 participants each year.

Executive Director Annette Alvarez said the connection with the Seminole Tribe has been very valuable for attendees. Previous visits have included time at Seminole schools and Billie Swamp Safari. The Tribal Court connection is fairly new, she said.

“[The Seminole Tribe of Florida] are an invaluable member of our community. Their [court] system, the sovereignty that they have on their own reservations and how they administer justice is critically important because many of our visitors come from countries where the rights of Indigenous People are being delved into and explored,” Alvarez said.

Global Ties Miami sees special courts as important for participants to learn about, Alvarez said, whether it’s a tribal court, children’s court, or a special criminal court for veterans.

This year’s group of visitors spent two days in South Florida, meeting not only Seminole Court leaders, but officials at the Third District Court of Appeals in Miami and the U.S. District Court | Southern District of Florida in Fort Lauderdale.

“These exchanges are designed to be very professional,” Alvarez said. “It’s real work and in this instance we are at tail end of three weeks in the U.S. These people have taken three weeks of their lives to examine issues that are critically important in their work.”

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at