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Serving the Cause of Tribal Justice as a Magistrate Judge

For teachers, there is nothing more exciting than to see where their students end up. The journey of our legal studies students begins in the virtual classrooms of the University and continues to the most exciting places.

One of our legal studies students now serves on the bench of a New Mexico county court as a magistrate judge. Student and magistrate judge Brent A. Detsoi took time out of his busy schedule to tell us about his academic and professional journeys.

tribal justice magistrate judge Brent Detsoi
Brent Detsoi. Image courtesy of author.

Dr. Fuchs: Judge Detsoi, why did you choose our University?

Judge Detsoi: I chose American Military University because I needed flexibility and accessibility. In addition, I have family members who served in the military, and my sister took some courses at AMU and recommended it to me.

It was a long road to travel. I started my studies in 2013 and at the time, there weren’t many online universities that offered eight-week courses. I started with a major in criminal justice at the University of New Mexico, and I ended up studying legal studies at AMU. I earned both an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree in legal studies, and I am currently working on a master’s degree in legal studies.

Dr. Fuchs: Why did you choose the legal studies program?

Judge Detsoi: At the beginning of my public safety career, I was a corrections officer, a police officer, and a probation and parole officer. There, I developed a passion for the law.

I had to take some time off from my studies at times, but I made some adjustments and acquired two associate degrees. Later, I earned the bachelor of science in legal studies and an undergraduate certificate in paralegal studies.

I also had the passion for this field. My inspiration was that I wanted to practice law in certain Native American tribal courts.

Practicing Law in Tribal Courts

Dr. Fuchs: You did not go to law school, but you are a magistrate judge. Tell us about that.

A: Under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975, and various U.S. Supreme Court case decisions, Native American tribes are permitted to create their own courts and laws. There are over 400 tribal courts in the United States.

Each of these tribal courts established their own regulations regarding legal practice. For instance, you should have legal experience, be a Native American, have a bachelor’s in a specific field, pay membership dues and receive training in the laws of a particular tribe.

Because I am a member of the Navajo Nation, I am permitted under the Navajo Nation Bar Association to practice law in Navajo courts. There are some conditions – I must take the Navajo bar exam and stay in good standing. I’m currently studying to take that bar exam later this year.

On October 15, 2021, I was sworn in and admitted as a member of the Ohkay Owingeh Tribal Court Bar Association. I am permitted to practice as a “non-lawyer legal counsel.” But after I became a magistrate judge, I was not permitted to practice law while on the bench.

Dr. Fuchs: What tribal justice cases are under the jurisdiction of a tribal court?

Judge Detsoi: A tribal court handles general jurisdiction criminal and civil cases. As far as criminal cases, this type of court handles any cases that are not felonies as defined by federal court criminal procedure definitions or whatever cases the Feds do not take up. For cases involving civil jurisdiction, the tribal court has broad jurisdiction.

Dr. Fuchs: Are you a member of any other bar associations?

Judge Detsoi: Aside from the Ohkay Owingeh Tribal Court Bar Association and my plans to become a member of the Navajo Nation Bar Association, I am a member of the American Bar Association. I am also a member of the LGBTQ Judges’ Association and an honorary member of the Federal Bar Association.

Dr. Fuchs: Are you thinking to go to law school?

Judge Detsoi: Indeed, going to law school is on my bucket list. It is my aspiration to apply and be accepted to one of the online or hybrid-style law schools while I still serve on the bench.

It won’t be easy to juggle school and work responsibilities since I am a magistrate judge in one of the busiest courts in the state. But I will do it one way or the other.

Working as a Magistrate Judge

Dr. Fuchs: How did you become a judge without being a member of the New Mexico bar?

Judge Detsoi: According to New Mexico law, magistrate judges have to be elected. There are various requirements to run.

You have to be 18 years of age at the time of filing your petition to be placed on the ballot and declaring your candidacy. You must also have a high school diploma or G.E.D., reside within your chosen district, and receive a certain number of votes.

I petitioned to be placed on the ballot for the 2022 primary election. Later, my campaign kicked off and I was elected to a four-year term months later.

Not long after taking the bench, I applied and was appointed by the New Mexico Supreme Court to the New Mexico Tribal-State Judicial Consortium. It’s a state Supreme Court advisory organization that consists of seven state judges and seven tribal judges.

According to the Consortium, its mission “is to establish working relationships based on mutual understanding, respect, and trust among tribal and state courts throughout New Mexico to achieve seamless justice for all.”

For instance, we review, develop, and provide recommendations to the state Supreme Court that will ensure those entities under state jurisdiction respect tribal court orders based on the full faith and credit and/or comity doctrines. I was also elected by my colleagues to serve as a Board of Director for the New Mexico Magistrate Judges Association, which mostly concerns our roles and responsibilities.

Dr. Fuchs: What cases do you hear as a magistrate?

Judge Detsoi: Our court hears criminal cases that are petty misdemeanors and misdemeanors. The potential jail time cannot exceed 364 days, and fine amounts cannot exceed $1,000 per count.

We do felony first appearances and preliminary examinations, establishing probable cause in felony cases. For civil cases, we hear claims of not more than $10,000 and cases that do not pertain to personal injuries, malpractice offenses, or divorce decrees.

As a magistrate judge, there are seldom instances where I write an actual decision, only because we are a court of non-record. There are times when I have to write decisions because either the statute or procedural rules mandate a written decision, such as subject-matter jurisdiction issues or conditions of release revocations.

Our decisions can be appealed or reviewed to a higher court de novo (a legal term meaning with a “blank slate”) based on the record. I think the longest opinion I wrote was 16 pages, regarding a motion to suppress evidence based on the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine.

The most rewarding parts of my job duties are officiating weddings and administering the oaths of office.

The Importance of Extracurricular Activities

Dr. Fuchs: What prepared you for this role in your academic career?

Judge Detsoi: First of all, my courses introduced me to legal thinking and writing. They really changed the way I now look at documents, both professionally and personally. The training that I got at AMU gave me the foundation to do the work I do.

Secondly, I was the vice president for Phi Alpha Delta (PAD), and it was a great educational experience for me. We took part in preparing for Moot Court and that preparation had such a profound impact on my training.

The experience develops a sense of camaraderie, along with a professional network. My campaign communication director was Jennifer Gushwa, the PAD President.

I also received letters of recommendation from legal studies faculty members James Barney and Dr. Alison Becker. These letters of recommendation which were important in my professional progress.

They were mentors who helped me get my bearing in the professional world. I developed public speaking skills and the ability to understand diverse communities.

Dr. Fuchs: What are your recommendations for other students?

Judge Detsoi: Put your mind to it and stick with your courses; do not give up! Maximize all of your educational experiences and use the University’s resources. For instance, the Career Services team can help you clean up your resume and letters of interest.

You can gain knowledge and build hard skills from your courses. But through online extracurricular activities, you can also build your soft skills, which will be equally helpful in future professional endeavors.

Ilan Fuchs

Dr. Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., an LL.M. and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the University, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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