The Tonto Apache Tribal court has operated without their own court of appeals until now when the tribe's population growth has dictated the need for a more sophisticated judicial system.
"It's like 20 years ago when Payson didn't have stoplights," said tribal council Chairman, Ivan Smith. "We didn't need them then, but we need them now."
Smith and the tribal council appointed three men to hear upcoming appeals. The judges, Thomas Zlaket, former Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court; Jesse Filkins, former Maricopa County Superior Court Judge; and former Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Kevin Gover, will begin hearing appeals in November.
"We are trying to build up our judicial system," said Nathaniel Campbell Tonto Apache Tribal court administrator said. "Our presiding judge is very aggressive and wanted to pursue it."
Presiding TAT judge, Tao Etpison, explained that TAT code allows for the creation of an appeals court.
"A code is in place that establishes a court of appeals, but it has never been utilized for two reasons," Etpison said. "No appellate judges were appointed and the tribe had contracted with Southwest Inter-Tribal Court of Appeals (SWITCA) without making the necessary changes in the present code. The present code does not recognize SWITCA. Therefore, there is a need for these outstanding judges to come on board to the tribe as its appellate forum arbiters."
Campbell said there are already about five TAT cases waiting for appeals, and a number of probate cases are also pending.
Two of the three new appellate judges, Campbell said, are from other Native American tribes, which is something that was important to the TAT council, and Etpison in their search for appeal court personnel.
"I feel excited about the tribe's action," Campbell said. "The tribe's judicial system has grown a lot in the three years I have been here."
Campbell is a former member of the tribal council and also has served as its vice chairman. The tribal council appointed the judges in November.
The five-member council that governs the legislative and executive processes of the Tonto Apache Tribe. The tribe was formally recognized by the federal government Oct. 6, 1972. Three years later, the tribe adopted its Law and Order Code.
(Teresa McQuerrey, staff reporter with the Roundup, also contributed to this story.)