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Judicial Profile: Devon Lee Lomayesva

By Lillian Glenister*


A portrait of Judge Devon Lee Lomayesva, Chief Judge for the Intertribal Court of the Southern District of California.
Judge Devon Lee Lomayesva

Introduction

The Honorable Devon Lee Lomayesva is an enrolled member of the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel and Chief Judge for the Intertribal Court of Southern California. Committed to service and passionate about her community, Judge Lomayesva is proud to be a part of a forum that gives tribal members a voice, symbolizes the definitive exercise of tribal sovereignty, and allows tribal members to resolve disputes.


Background

Judge Lomayesva spent her childhood years growing up in San Diego County. She briefly lived on the Santa Ysabel Reservation, about forty miles east of Escondido on Highway 79 between Lake Henshaw and Santa Ysabel. After leaving the reservation, she lived in East County with her parents and younger brother. As a child, Judge Lomayesva dreamed about being a teacher or an actress. But by seventh grade, she had her sights set on becoming an attorney—specifically, a public defender. “My family was no stranger to the criminal law system,” she said. “I saw them go through many struggles, including alcoholism and drug use.”

 

When she was in high school and following the passing of her father, Judge Lomayesva’s 10-year-old brother started to get into legal trouble. “Looking back, it was frustrating,” she said. “My mom didn’t have a high school diploma and was not able to navigate the system as a single mom.” This exposure to the legal system solidified Judge Lomayesva’s interest in being an advocate. “Although at that age you don’t really understand the legal system, I knew I wanted to be able to help those who were voiceless,” she said.

 

After graduating from Ramona High School, Judge Lomayesva went on to attend Grossmont College and later transferred to San Diego State University as a history major. At SDSU, she joined the Native American Student Alliance on campus and co-founded the American Indian Recruitment Programs, a nonprofit organization that still, to this day, promotes higher education for Native American youth through culturally based mentoring and tutoring. It was at SDSU where Judge Lomayesva met one of the great mentors in her life, the late Linda Parker, J.D., Ph.D., who was chair of the American Indian Studies Department. It was through Dr. Parker that Judge Lomayesva learned of the American Indian Pre-Law Summer Institute at the University of New Mexico. Judge Lomayesva completed the eight-week program for aspiring Native American law students following her graduation from SDSU.


Legal Career

Wanting to stay close to home, Judge Lomayesva enrolled at California Western School of Law in San Diego. She became the founding president of Cal Western’s Native American Law Students Association and worked as a law clerk at California Indian Legal Services in Escondido. Her work there led Judge Lomayesva to veer from her original goal of becoming a public defender. “I developed an appreciation for the work of legal aid programs and also saw the importance of serving the most underserved of the underserved,” she said. After law school, Judge Lomayesva continued to serve her community through various roles with California Indian Legal Services, including as a fellow for the National Association for Public Interest Law, staff attorney, directing attorney, senior staff attorney, and eventually, executive director.

 

Looking back on her time in law school, Judge Lomayesva reflected that her resumé does not include law review or any publications. “What my contribution has been, instead, is really being in the community itself,” she said. Whether she is attending community events or talking extensively with native youth, Judge Lomayesva sees herself as not only a lawyer and judge, but as an educator. “A lot of my time outside the law is spent giving lectures and educating on tribal government and essentially demystifying tribes and some of the common assumptions about tribes,” she said. Indeed, Judge Lomayesva was previously adjunct faculty at Palomar College and is now a lecturer at SDSU, teaching a course on the American Indian political experience.

 

Before starting her own practice in 2014, Judge Lomayesva worked as a staff attorney for the California Indian Lands Office, in-house counsel for her own tribe the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel (formerly the Santa Ysabel Band of Diegueño Indians), and in-house counsel for the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians. Judge Lomayesva still operates her private practice, Lomayesva Law Corporation, P.C., however, she primarily works on a contract basis with the Soboba Band of Indians as her responsibility with the Court grows.


Journey to the Bench

Judge Lomayesva’s journey to the bench began almost ten years ago. A colleague mentioned tribal court to her, and she immediately researched how to become a pro tempore judge. In 2015, Judge Lomayesva began serving on the Intertribal Court of Southern California as a pro tem judge and began to preside over cases. “I fell in love with being on the Court,” she said. “And the stars were aligned because the Court began its search for a new chief judge eight years ago this April.”

 

The Intertribal Court of Southern California serves over a dozen southern California Indian tribes on civil matters in various areas, including law and order, child welfare, the environment, housing, tort claims, employment discrimination, and tribal affairs. These matters are heard by eight judges, including Chief Judge Lomayesva, an associate judge, and six pro tem judges. The judges spend much of their time sorting out federal, state, and tribal jurisdictional issues.

 

Since April 2016, Judge Lomayesva has served the Intertribal Court as its chief judge and has helped the Court go from about three employees ten years ago, to about fifteen positions (although not all the positions are filled). Judge Lomayesva is proud to have grown the Court and its budget, with expansions into youth court and transition court, as well as more family resources to better serve its member tribal communities.

 

In recent years, “the Court has also been able to establish amazing partnerships within the legal community,” Judge Lomayesva said. For example, the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program recently collaborated with the Intertribal Court to put on a guardianship clinic. “My goal is to promote the intersection of tribal law, Federal Indian Law, federal law, and state law,” she said. “A lot of attorneys don’t know about Indian law. It’s important to understand that as a family law attorney, for example, you could get a native client, and there are things you need to know about and learn to do your job right.”

 

As a current Federal Bar Association member, Judge Lomayesva always looks forward to attending the national FBA’s annual Indian Law Conference. Locally, she has served as a panelist for the San Diego FBA’s annual POWER Act (Pro Bono Work to Empower and Represent Act) presentation, which provides information about pro bono opportunities available in San Diego to help survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. Judge Lomayesva also recently joined the FBA’s Tribal Court Judges Committee and is hoping to recruit more members.

 

For Judge Lomayesva, the most meaningful part of being on the Intertribal Court is its ability to serve community members who might otherwise be overlooked. “Because of the jurisdictional maze that is Indian Country, there are so many people who slip through the holes of tribal, state, and federal court,” she said. “It feels good when I see we’ve been able to take an issue where someone had nowhere else to go and we were able to offer the help that they needed, whether it be a domestic violence temporary restraining order or guardianship issue.”


Commitment to Culture and Family

Judge Lomayesva lives with her husband and three children in Valley Center. She is deeply involved in her community and culture, currently serving as chair of the Traditional Gathering Committee for her tribe, which is in the midst of planning its 25th anniversary event. “Culture and maintaining our traditions are very important,” she said.

 

In addition, Judge Lomayesva enjoys attending tribal gatherings with her family. She and her children often participate in peon, a traditional gambling hand game, as well as the traditional storytelling artforms of bird singing and bird dancing. Under the guidance of tribal elders, Judge Lomayesva is also passionate about and focused on putting together a dictionary to document Iipay Aa—her tribe’s language.


Advice to Young Lawyers

Judge Lomayesva recommends that law students interested in tribal law not get too caught up worrying about whether a law school offers an Indian law program. “Although tribal law seems to be a niche practice, it’s much broader than people think,” she said. “So, it’s important that young attorneys and law students understand the intersectionality of tribal law and that things can hit you from every direction, whether it be federal law, property, contracts, probate, or child welfare law.”

 

Perhaps most salient, Judge Lomayesva encourages attorneys interested in tribal law to put the work into understanding the Native American tribes that they may seek to represent. “Every tribe is so different,” she said. “Attorneys must approach tribes with respect, taking the time to learn about a tribe and their history, learning their name, and making the effort to say their name correctly.”


* Lillian Glenister is a Public Relations Committee Member of the Federal Bar Association’s San Diego Chapter. She is a Judicial Law Clerk for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.

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