When he crosses the wide gates that separate the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s headquarters from Hollywood, Judge Jose Izquierdo is only minutes from the main courthouse in Fort Lauderdale.
But in many ways, he’s a world away.
On the tribe’s reservation set back from a busy city street, he’s an outsider — and one of only a few people with the inside knowledge to help the tribe accomplish a necessary task.
Izquierdo is a Broward circuit judge, where he has sat since 2016, and serves in the dependency division. He presides over cases of alleged child abuse or neglect, and makes daily rulings that affect the lives of children whose parents are either unable or unwilling to provide care.
For the last year, he has been both teacher and student serving a tribe with a rich history and troubling past with the federal and state government.
Every 60 days after handling his regular Friday docket, the judge picks up his laptop, scheduler and case files, and heads to the tribe’s administrative office.
“I take my robe,” he said. “I usually pack it all up.”
Sometimes, he stops for lunch along the way because he’ll spend the afternoon hearing up to a dozen cases involving Seminole children. On one of the top floors of the tribe’s office tower, Izquierdo presides in the presence of a panel of Native American judges, judicial staff and court reporters. The idea is for mutual feedback: He teaches them how to run a Western-style dependency court, and they educate him on Seminole laws and traditions.
“It’s been kind of a unique relationship,” Seminole Tribal Court Chief Judge Moses Osceola said. “‘He teaches us the traditional court system ways, and we can help him with some of the traditional Indian thinking.”
The Seminole Tribe is a sovereign nation, but it must still abide by U.S. rules under Public Law 280, which gives the federal government jurisdiction over criminal and civil matters on Indian reservations.
The Seminole Tribe gained recognition from the federal government in 1957 and has since created a tribal council and formal system of government. Its leaders launched a dispute-resolution center and signed an ordinance in 2011 to develop a court of civil jurisdiction. State and federal courts still handle criminal cases, which are often more expensive.
“With a lot of the tribes out there, a court as you know it is a foreign thing,” said Stan Wolfe, a Cherokee attorney from North Carolina who moved to Florida in 2005 to help the Seminoles establish a formal judiciary.
Although the tribe had a police force, it had no formal prosecution and law enforcement system.
“We’ve never gotten around to developing the trial court,” Wolfe said.
In the past, tribal elders adjudicated disputes during the annual Green Corn Ceremony, but the Seminoles are moving toward a new practice.
“We had a power shift,” Seminole Court Chief Justice Willie Johns said.
In a building where busts of Native American ancestors line the lobby and the statue of a hunter stands over a fountain near the foyer, Izquierdo presides over dependency cases involving Seminole children and families. In the process, he’s teaching the tribe’s judges how to run a dependency court. The tribe provides social services similar to the Florida Department of Children and Families, and the goal is to create a system that brings the entire dependency process under the tribe’s umbrella.
“The tribe does a very good job educating me about some of the customs that I am unaware of, which I think helps make me a better judge,” Izquierdo said. “They give me a perspective that I don’t necessarily have.”
That education is essential in a system of concurrent jurisdiction, now focused on ensuring Seminole children remain in their community through a collaborative process.
It’s especially important in a process where cultural misunderstandings have had far-reaching consequences.
In one instance, authorities outside the tribe launched an investigation based on scratches on a Seminole child’s skin. Observers suspected abuse, but the marks were from an ancient Seminole tradition in which medicine men or guardians used needles to break the top layer of skin.
“We believe it’s a gift from God,” Johns said. “It lets out old blood … for a new start.”
Authorities hope to avoid errors that could tear children from loving homes.
The idea stems from the Indian Child Welfare Act, which the federal government enacted in 1978 after a public outcry over the practice of separating children from their families and communities even when relatives were available and willing to assume guardianship.
At the time, state child-welfare and private adoption agencies removed about 25 percent to 35 percent of Native American children from their parents and extended families, immersing the majority in a foreign culture.
In response, state and federal courts looked for ways to work with tribes across the country. In Broward County, Izquierdo would help build a partnership that honored the Seminole Tribe’s customs.
“I felt this was an [area] that needed to be addressed,” Izquierdo said. “There was just a disproportionately high rate of forced removal of Indian children from their homes.”
The Broward judge started by offering to handle Indian Child Welfare Act cases transferred to his division in addition to his regular docket. Then, working with Broward, state and Seminole court administrators, he took the proceedings from his courtroom to the reservation. The goal is to alleviate discomfort and suspicion until the tribe can create its own court for cases involving children.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Izquierdo, a first-generation American born to Cuban parents. “I understand — particularly listening to my mother, grandmother and grandfather — being in an unfamiliar environment and the [discomfort] that comes with that.”
That’s part of the reason the Broward judge says he’s happy to leave the familiarity of his bench and make the trip across town to the tribe’s courtroom.
“To me, it’s a plus across the board,” Izquierdo said. “If this helps someone open up and get the help they might need, then I’m all for it.”